Plums are maligned. I read something disturbing about them in an article touting the psychological benefits of eating strawberries. Strawberries are wonderful, of course, they’re gemlike, the ethereal little pixies of the fruit world – but the article concluded the opposite of a strawberry is the tumorous plum. Plums are purported to depress people.
It’s not fair.
My earliest memories take place in the backlots of Croatian communist apartment blocks. After sufficiently allowing unknown relatives to stroke my face and cry, I’d drift through the hot still hallway air (smells: plaster, yellow books, cigarettes, paprika) and down precarious elevators holding a bare handful of raw, pink meat scraps to feed skinny stray kittens. Out in the sun I’d catch butterflies in cupped hands still wet with flesh juice. Most of the world’s backlots have fences or boarders over which some kind of greenery encroaches, and in my concrete playgrounds, there dangled the laden branches of plum trees. The plums were beautiful, they shone, and I felt like they were important, too, with the mythic significance of a magic gemstone you find in videogame. Like something that could make you impervious to heat and thereby capable of surmounting the fire level. I stood at the peripheries and edaciously reached up.
They were black, but across the rocky landscape also red, yellow, glaucous blue, green, and a variety that came white dabbed with a snowcone of hot pink where the sun licked them. When you ate them you’d usually discover a worm (but whatever). Like figs, they were too abundant to really be sold at groceries. When they fell and rotted trunkside it was lurid human gore. Commonplace, they populated my life in a variety of forms.
And I think they need an advocate.
Black plums sliced into quarters over a bowl in a sunlit kitchen, no cutting board needed. That’s the first step of this – one of the three recipes my grandmother made, which were apple strudel (the dough was stretched out over white linen sheets), palacinke (crepes, I’d sit by the pan and consume like a conveyor belt upon completion) and plum filled potato dumpling (Knedle sa Šljivama) the mashed-potato and egg dough gluey on my blonde arm hair, warmly enveloping fruit. The globes would boil in oily water until they swam to the top signaling to be rescued with a slotted spoon. My grandmother would heat olive oil in a cast-iron skillet and mix sugar with breadcrumbs. Fried brown in this granular sweetness, the dumplings were soft, molten and slurried reddish purple on white.
I found them again in a classic book of children’s poetry, some vestige of a time that never happened, when I was read aloud to in a different country. “Forgive me,” it beseeched, in a way I understood (linking back to that mythological power, that witchy dark appeal). And then the word ‘icebox’ of course, so retro, but perfectly aligned with the primordial and ancient associations I instinctually felt for the plum – one of man’s first cultivated coups, anyway, a stocker of prehistoric pantries. A voluptuous secret stash discovered. The cincher was “so sweet and so cold,” the conveyance of pleasure that requires two “so’s.” The viscerality of teeth tearing skin, sinking into chilled sugar pulp, molars awash in bright, clear juice, and the understandable loss of control.
“Some rakia!”, exclaimed with burly confidence by the caption whose vessel was making me green, age seven, unable to traverse the ocean I was named after, my eyes screwed shut and my body half off-board as if that would help. The alcohol came out of a pop bottle stripped of its label. It was clear and brewed at home from backyard plums (my mom said “bathtub” which I pictured literally and for all I know accurately). Its percentage was stratospheric. It made my mouth wrench across my face’s complete horizontal capacity, I saw phosphernes blotch against the sea-blue and my being was split between the fetal position and one giant lurch. Later, I’d always have a bottle on hand (conventionally brewed, digestif, purple label in the liquor store).
If jams and jellies are identified by a jolly clarity and supermarket gloss this is something different entirely – it’s almost black, brown in the light, with the viscous, sluggish spreadability of a million prunes mashed to paste. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. It’s the taste of old-country baking, lard crust and blue checked cloth, things that once necessitated preservation, but now are overlooked, another out of vogue flavour, inelegant sturdiness, strong legs sitting down. But I needed something in my university apartment cupboard that invoked my confounded roommate’s disgust as I smeared spoons of it on toast. It didn’t matter if I got crumbs in the jar, it was mine alone.