The first 20 years of my life were marked by the annual prune harvest, a tradition that has disappeared from my hometown today. In fact, many of the old-fashioned by-hand harvest methods have disappeared even from the places that still cultivate prunes. (Yes, they are really plums, but they are a specific breed called a prune.)
Some of my recent paintings document those harvest days. At The Dipper shows my father and our two “day men,” Moses and Sylvester, at the dipper. Before the prunes went into the dehydrator, they were dipped in hot lye water. I always thought it was just a way to wash them. But recently a friend told me this lye bath changes the prunes’ skin so they will dry properly, shriveling with the meat instead bloating up during drying.
It was a hot, messy process. And it seemed completely romantic to me. I begged to help with the dipping but I was never tall and strong enough to lift the trays of prunes to the top of the stack. My mother and I handled the trays later, after the prunes were dry. It wasn’t as romantic: no steam coming off the lye water and none of that pruney-wet-lye water smell.