Text and photos by Rocky Hoffmann
Wild plums can be enjoyed in the dead of winter with a little late-summer work.
If there is a need to justify a visit to the countryside early in the spring when skies hold onto winter's gray and leaves have not yet hatched from swollen buds, it's to immerse oneself in the syrup-thick fragrance of wild plum blossoms. Among the earliest trumpeters of milder seasons to come, the American plum (Prunus Americana) flaunts its ivory clusters well before it unfurls its own leaves. Softly contrasted against charcoal skeletons of dense thickets, plum blossoms highlight canyon cuts and fencerows. The beckoning perfume of plum blossoms gradually builds to an olfactory crescendo as the sun warms the season.
Thickets drone with a thousand wings dragging follicle-lined legs through this wealth of early pollen. Then, with a sudden April breeze, a blizzard of blossoms scatters across the prairie. As leaves begin to drape prickly branches, evidence that bees have been proverbially busy is in the tiny almond-shaped fruit that have set. Only a severe freeze or an invasion of tent caterpillars, both of which occur with frequent regularity across Nebraska, can interrupt the fruiting cycle.
Schoolboys have two employments for wild plums, only one of which is eating. When green and hard, plums make perfect ammunition for slingshots. I suspect I may be venturing back a few years, actually quite a few years, to my generation as a youth when every country kid had a slingshot and every fencerow had a plum thicket. As plums ripen, they make even better ammunition, because not only do they retain their efficiency, but they also punctuate their trajectory in an admirable splatter. When plums become perfectly ripe, however, they have outgrown the leather in most slingshots and are also much too sweet to launch at a horse's rump.
We ate them, of course, without washing them or wiping the haze from their skins, and there is a trick to eating a wild plum. Simply score the skin on one end of the plum with your teeth and suck with all your might, while at the same time, squeezing the plum between forefinger and thumb. The pulp and syrup from beneath the skin pours forth, presenting a tangy palate. Discard the skin because that's where the pucker resides. This process does implant the pit in your mouth, which you polish and discard or, even better, use in your slingshot.
Raccoons and coyotes enjoy wild plums even more than schoolboys, but take a look around when you go for a September walk and you'll find evidence that indicates that unlike schoolboys, raccoons and coyotes don't bother to sort out the skins or the seeds. Like schoolboys, however, it is a numbers game. The more you eat, the better you feel - at least for the moment.
Short-term gratification is the usual reward when it comes to seasonal fruit. Fortunately, moms understand that while wild plums can be enjoyed in December, you'll not find one on a branch then. With a little extra time invested in the thicket in September and later over the burner of a stove, plums can be put by for when the natural pantry is bare. During those occasional years of bounty crops when plums hang in clusters, filling a pail is the least of the work involved. It is important to wait until the plums are perfectly ripe, a state that can be detected not only by the wealth of plums already fallen to the ground but by their saturation in color, which includes purples, deep yellows and reds. A little pinch that produces some soft denting in response is also a good indicator of perfect ripeness.
Preserves and jams that retain the skin also retain the integrity of the plum and therefore are my choices for jarring. Jam is made from crushed or ground fruit and usually has a thick consistency. Make preserves by cooking whole or large pieces of fruit in thick sugar syrup. Jelly is made from fruit juice and contains no visible
Then there is pectin, acid and sugar. Pectin is absolutely necessary for thickening. It is always present in fruits, but may be found in higher concentrations in some fruits than in others. It is also found commercially in powdered or liquid form. Most recipes call for commercial pectin. Acid must also be present for gel to form. If natural acid is lacking, lemon juice may be added, but this is usually not required of tart plums. Sugar also helps to form the gel. It certainly adds sweetness and is a true preservative. Low sugar fruit-spread recipes are available and produce good results. Refrigerate or freeze the final product of low sugar recipes, because non-nutritive sweeteners do not preserve and spoilage will result.
Always use tried and proven recipes from reliable sources and follow the recipe. Don't double up for bigger batches - make two. Cleanliness is always the key to food preparation and sterile cleanliness is the key to canning.
Plum recipes can be found in many cookbooks and by googling "plum recipes" online. Try this one from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.Plum Preserves:
o 5 cups pitted, wild plums, about 2.5 pounds
o 4 cups sugar
o 1 cup water
Yield: About 5, half-pint jars
Procedure: Sterilize canning jars. Combine all ingredients. Bring slowly to boiling, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil rapidly over high heat, about 15 minutes, almost to the jellying point, which is 8 degrees F. above the boiling point of water. Stir frequently to prevent sticking or burning. Pour hot preserves into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; adjust two-piece metal canning lids. Process the jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes anywhere in Nebraska, because that is the process time for altitudes between 1,000 feet and 6,000 feet above sea level.