A prune by any other name smells sweet

By Bob Hicks

Mrs. Scatter shovels a tiny spoon beneath my nose.

“You need to taste this new mustard,” she commands.

What’s this? New mustard? Mrs. Scatter’s been making the same mustard for so long it’s plastered on our sensory memories like the one tattoo you don’t regret. It’s Old Faithful, the house standard, the creme de condiments. If you can’t trust the house mustard, what can you trust?

Is this a prune? Naming goes plum loco.So trying out a new recipe seems slightly slatternly: are we cheating? But the weather’s changing. Restlessness is in the air. And there’s the little matter of those three mostly full bottles of regrettably bland wine that need to be used up.

I hesitate, then dutifully down the little spoonful of coarse new mustard, which has a sweet-and-sour, unknitted, wait-and-see tang.

“It needs to age,” I say.

Mrs. Scatter nods. She knows that. This is only a test.

Fall and food go together in the Scatter household — perhaps you’ve seen Mrs. Scatter’s posts on pickles and chutney and such — and matters of the stomach have been popping up all day.

“This is why I’m a vegetarian,” Mrs. Scatter mutters, wrinkling her nose and pointing to a newspaper story about the negative health effects on human consumers of antibiotic-pumped meat from factory farms.

In the New York Times’ dining section, wine guy Eric Asimov extols the virtues of big reds from Spain’s Ribera del Duoro region, finding a best value at $22, cheapest offering in a list of 10 recommended bottles that climb all the way up to 59 bucks. I glance over at the remainder of last night’s bottle, also a deep red Spaniard, and smile. This one’s a tempranillo, made by Casa Gualda on the legendary literary plains of La Mancha, and it’s not in the same league as Asimov’s tipples. But it’s more than pleasing, and it knocked all of a $6.99 dent in the Scatter grocery budget, and if I manage to get back to the same store in time I’ll pick up a few more bottles.

Next up on the food-news front, beneath a story revealing that the salmonella-spreading food giant Wright Egg Farm conducted tests as much as two years ago suggesting the presence of the toxin (wouldn’t that maybe also suggest some sort of action?) the Times’s business cover reports on a push by the national Corn Refiners Association to get its product “high fructose corn syrup” renamed a more nerve-soothing “corn sugar.” Lest you think this is something on the order of the military contractor Blackwater changing its tainted name to Xe Services so people won’t remember its rogue history, the story quotes even enemies of the sweetener as saying that the corn stuff is no worse than sugar from beets or cane. The Times story’s author, Tara Parker-Pope, also reports that the federal Food and Drug Administration has made this sort of switch before: the cuddly-sounding “canola oil” once had the menacing name “low erucic acid rapeseed oil,” and prunes, those wrinkly, flavor-packed beauties, may officially be called “dried plums.”

I don’t know what to think about this corn syrup business, but I’m a little sad about the prunes. Growing up on a giant-sized lot in a little farm town, I had seven climbing and eating trees that were my good and faithful friends. One was a gnarly, ancient Gravenstein apple, impossibly misshapen but reliably producing tart scabby-skinned lumps of intoxicating flavor. Three were nut trees — filberts, we called them, and it wasn’t until I moved to Oregon as an adult that I ever heard the marketing-preferred version, “hazelnut.” Three were Italian prunes, slight but robust-bearing trees dripping with those deeply delicious blue-purple dirigibles of fruit.

On the theory that a plum is a fresh fruit and a prune is a plum that’s been dried like a raisin, these fruits should rightly have been called Italian plums, but that’s not the way things were: prunes they were called, so prunes they were, and if anyone wanted to make a joke about it, I knew a couple of Italian American kids more than willing to set them straight. I tend to be a traditionalist about such linguistic matters, anyway: One does not hit a baseball a country meter.

And one does not mess with such memories lightly. Beneath one of the filbert trees was a weed-strewn scrabble of rhubarb, which each year produced enough stalks for at least a dozen pies, always cross-latticed on top and never cut with strawberries: a true rhubarb pie is a tart and unsullied thing. Below a limb on the Gravenstein the humiliated corpse of an old chicken coop slumped toward the ground, abandoned and uncreatured, although the little band of banties that paraded around the place for a while must have roosted somewhere. Although my mother stoutly denies it, I distinctly remember the hens now and again tottering into the house and strutting behind the sofa (which we called the chesterfield) to nestle down and lay a half-pint egg.

Much of the lot was given over to a profuse fruit and vegetable garden, which my father tended every evening. The bounty was profound: cabbage, kale, mustard greens, iceberg and butter lettuce, summer and winter squashes of every size and shape, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, cucumbers, peppers, tall corn stalks yielding ears plucked fresh and dropped immediately into boiling water … more food, of greater variety, than you can imagine. The whole enterprise was an imprecise balance of flora and fauna. Sometimes we’d bury fish skeletons, heads and tails still attached, near the corn for fertilizer. Garter snakes, earthworms, ladybugs, birds and rabbits shared the territory. Leafy vegetables inevitably arrived in the kitchen with holes in the outer leaves. My father just smiled. “We grow enough for us and the bunnies,” he’d say.

I didn’t do much in the garden when I was young — I lacked the patience — and I do far less now, when I lack the patience and the knees. But there was an order to things, and part of that order was assigning proper names. The process had an earthy bluntness to it. A beet was a beet. A cauliflower was a cauliflower. Broccoli was broccoli. An Italian prune was an Italian prune. Marketing managers really didn’t have anything to do with it. A thing was what a thing was.

So, Italian prunes are in season, and lately we’ve been making a point of buying lots of them. They’re as delicious as I recall, as long as you remember to wait for them to get a little soft and yielding, when they’re just right. Mrs. Scatter has devised a foolproof method of serving them. Slice ’em in half lengthwise, pop out the pit, dab a little room-temp Gorgonzola in the concave of each half, top the cheese with a pine nut. Delicious.

We’ll give this new-fangled mustard another try in a couple of weeks, after it’s melded in the refrigerator, and see how it stacks up. Good or not so good, we’ll still call it mustard.