I thought about this cake the other day and remembered how much I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t expecting the interesting history I would uncover when I looked into it. My mother loved this cake and baked it often. It must have been the rage in the mid-‘60s and perhaps through the mid-‘70s, but not a single recipe ever made it into the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book. Yet, I know others in town were baking it. In fact, it was even difficult to google. Very few sites even acknowledged its existence. Fortunately, I found her hand-written copy. Its well-worn pages had all come unattached from its binding. However, I wanted to find a recipe with which to compare it and that proved time-consuming.
I was beginning to think there was something suspicious about prunes, and I was right. I think this must be one of the greatest recipe cover-ups in recent history. Fortunately, I was able to find a recipe on-line on an old can of Crisco, which, of course, suggested that Crisco was the substitute of choice for butter. Apart from that, every ingredient called for was the same as my mom’s. But why was it that this prune cake was flushed from recipes books everywhere?
Prunes, as everyone knows, start out as plums, but the prune fruit is a different type of plum. I remember that my father once had planted a prune plum, but it did not do well. I think it was lonely. Moreover, choosing to plant it where he did, probably was not the best location. Anyway, it gave us a few prunes and then died. The difference in a plum and a prune plum is that for some reason the seed is easier to remove from its flesh. Rolling pins work great at this. (Incidentally, not all plums can be dried into prunes.)
Prunes have been around for a long time. Like so many of the fruits we eat and enjoy today, plums and their cousins, prunes, came to Europe via the Mediterranean courtesy of Greek and Roman trade with the Far East. To survive the journey, these were dried transforming them into the prunes we know so well. As such they have a very long shelf-life i.e., they need no expiration date. Being highly nutritious made them ideal during periods of lean harvests or long journeys over land and water. Somehow, someway, over thousands of years they became associated with nutritional, dietary and medical properties. Early Greek, Roman, and Arab physicians regularly prescribed them as apparently they resolved certain problems.
Then, in the 12th century, upon their return from the 3rd Crusade, the Benedictine monks grafted the newly introduced Damas plums from Syria onto local varieties. The new variety was well adapted to the soils and climate of the European Southwest. Drying these created a new type of prune—large and delicately flavored. It became the Pruneaux d’Agen plum, and thanks to traders it was exported to Bordeaux. It became the superfood of its day; easily stored, it also became a staple aboard sailing ships. Prunes began to be found in every port. Columbus probably had them aboard his ships.
Prunes contain very little protein, and even less fat. Its sugars are easily available for one’s body to use but are released progressively making them highly prized by athletes participating in high and medium intensity sports. Consequently, prunes became associated with physical exercise and a balanced diet—a foundation for any healthy lifestyle. How on earth this recipe became such a rage just past mid-20thcentury will have to remain a mystery. I couldn’t find a direct answer. Not a single cookbook in my entire collection has anything to say about this once popular cake and one must delve quite deep to find it referenced on the internet. The popularity of this cake was sadly short-lived.
Prunes were being consumed in the US, but growers felt they wanted to broaden their appeal beyond the “senior” population in the early 2000’s, so in 2002 growers petitioned the government to allow them to begin marketing prunes as “dried plums.” The stereotyping of prunes for the elderly had gotten out of control they said. Of course, the industry’s own research was used to convince Congress and Americans that women between the ages of 35 and 50 overwhelmingly preferred the new term, but it was going to be difficult to change consumers’ minds overnight. It has now been 20 years since the name change and the industry is still working to undermine the idea that prunes are only medicinal food for old folks, rather than healthful, nutritious food for anyone who is leading an active lifestyle.
Unfortunately, no one was able to think of a better way to describe prune juice. With this product their efforts hit a wall they couldn’t overcome. It appears the industry had to be told by the Food and Drug Administrationthat dried plum fruit juice was a contradiction in terms that even the most simple-minded congressman understood. I suppose it was reassuring that not all employees of the government had lost their minds. Yet, this idiocy lasted for the nearly the next two decades. Even as almost an entire generation had gone to its grave, common sense finally reemerged because this new marketing ploy did not work. Annual production of prunes had dropped from 220,000 tons in 1997 to a mere 77,000 tons in 2019. The California Dried Plum movement had cost growers dearly. In 2019, the new California Prune Board (formally the California Dried Plum Board) bashfully began embracing “prunes” once again. With nearly twenty years of plunging sales, it was time to flush their idiotic new ideas behind them – they introduced their new slogan—”Prunes for Life.” They did not consult the government to enact a law this time.
I never know what I am going to encounter when I begin my research on some of these recipes – this one was particularly entertaining. Who would have thought that so much drama lay behind the history of the simple prune. I do believe that this explains what may have happened to the Prunella Cake – it was a casualty of the “Great Prune Coverup” or we might call it “Prunegate”. Once shamefully flushed from pages of cookbooks everywhere, it’s time for the return of this delightful cake. Enjoy.
By Mark Wieser
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup sour milk
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
1 ½ cups flour
2/3 cup cooked prunes
2/3 cup pecans
Combine prunes and water in a saucepan.
Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 2 minutes.
Drain, reserving 2 tbsp juice for frosting.
Blend butter, sugar, and eggs.
Add chopped, stewed prunes.
Stir in sour milk.
Add flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and baking powder.
Pour into 2 greased and flowered 9-inch round pans.
Bake in moderate oven 350ºF 25-30 minutes or until inserted toothpick comes out clean.
2 cups powder sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp prune sauce
½ tbsp lemon juice
Combine and heat until creamy.