Welcome to a new series! I’ve been writing Cooking with the Silent Stars for some time, which covers recipes attributed to silent era celebrities, but I wanted to try my hand at recreating the dishes shown in the silent films themselves.
I traditionally launch new series with things that are related to The Sheik but I decided to shine the spotlight on one of Mary Pickford’s best films this time around. In Daddy Long Legs (1919), Pickford plays a spunky orphan who goes to college and dreams of becoming a published author.
The orphanage is not quite Dickensian but it is unpleasant and one of the worst aspects is the steady diet of prunes. Pickford leads a prune uprising, which quickly fizzles and it’s back to prunes three times a day.
For this experiment, I used a stewed prune recipe from the 1918 edition of the iconic Boston Cooking-School Cook Book originally penned by Fannie Farmer (and the last edition completely penned by her before her death in 1915). This was THE cooking bible for American homes of the era. The recipe is as follows:
Wash and pick over prunes. Put in a saucepan, cover with cold water, and soak two hours; then cook until soft in same water. When nearly cooked, add sugar or molasses to sweeten. Many prefer the addition of a small quantity of lemon juice.
Farmer recommends the prunes as a topping for hot cereal with sugar and cream but the orphans were eating their prunes straight so I opted to do the same. I also pressed my father into service as a taster because he ate and enjoyed stewed prunes as a child.
The prunes were pitted (alas, it’s relative hard to find prunes with pits in my neck of the woods) but I soaked them in juuuuust enough water to cover. Farmer leaves everything to taste, I added two teaspoons of sugar to about a cup of prunes. (I rather like molasses but I had an unfortunate incident with a broken jar and need a break from it to recover. Cleaning up molasses and glass is no joke!)
I cooked the prunes over medium-low heat, stirred them occasionally and took them off the stove once the water had reduced to the consistency of maple syrup. I added the lemon juice midway through cooking. “A small quantity” is a relative term. I used a fair portion of half a lemon because my whole family prefers things on the tart side.
Here they are:
Verdict: Deeeelish! I’ve always liked prunes; they’re basically bigger, better raisins and they produce a warrior’s drink. Plumping dried fruit is a classic way to add flavor, there’s just no way to lose. Stewing prunes in sugar and juice amplifies their rich flavor and produces an equally rich syrup that can be drizzled in that sexy spiral all the kids are using these days. Stewed prunes are to plums what baked apples are to raw apples, if that gives you an idea of what to expect.
My father said that they were the best stewed prunes he had ever had, so they have an authentic seal of approval from a veteran eater of the dish. (Biased? Never! Seriously, though, he loved the extra lemon juice.) I plan to make them again and eat them on oatmeal with cream and sugar, as Fannie Farmer suggests. In addition to everything else, they are ridiculously packed with nutrients.
Oh, and keep in mind before consuming that the certain thing that prunes are famous for doing is a scientific fact. Be careful out there, kids!
I found the prunes to be quite tasty. Really, how can you go wrong with plumped up dried fruit and lemon juice? This leads us to the big question: Why the heck were they so unpopular? Why would Mary Pickford riot over them in Daddy Long Legs? There are several answers.
Quality or Lack Thereof
I purchased my ingredients at a grocery store but the prunes served to orphans and immigrants were sometimes of such low quality that scandal ensued. Further, I stewed my recipe with care and tasted to make sure that the ratio of sweet and sour were to my taste. An orphanage like the one portrayed in Daddy Long Legs would not likely put that much care into food preparation.
A word that keeps cropping up in vintage texts when stewed prunes are mentioned is “watery” and is it any surprise. A 1920 issue of the Herald and Presbyter describes orphanage prunes:
So the “prunes” served in Pickford’s film were really more water than anything else with precious little sugar and likely no lemon juice. Diluting is a classic way of making food dollars stretch but it also can render the dish inedible, which seems to be what happened in orphanages at such a rate that the badness of the dish is casually mentioned as common knowledge.
The film itself backs up this notion. Water and lots of it!
Eating anything day in and day out can take a toll, especially if the food is badly prepared and strong-tasting. I think back to the watery coleslaw of my school lunch days (I was taken out after fifth grade, hallelujah!) and how it turned me off to all slaws for years. And I had the option of bringing my lunch AND the slaw was only three times a week. Three times a day? And forced to eat it? I’d be rioting too.
First world problem? Maybe. But when meals are prepared without any attention paid to the happiness of the eaters, no good can result. And studies show that when schoolchildren are fed quality, healthy lunches, they do better academically.
Prunes were cheap, nutritious and easy to store, which made them ideal for mass feeding. Prunes were stuffed down the throats of immigrants and orphans and who can blame them for being resentful? My father was drafted for Vietnam and he still can’t look a can of Spam in the face. He loves his tinned meats (specifically, he loves his Vienna sausages) but that spiced ham brings back memories of an unpleasant nature.
For an orphan or immigrant growing up in the early twentieth century, prunes would have likely reminded them of being poor and the target of discrimination and abuse. Unpleasant associations, to say the least, and even people who were raised in comfortable situations would be aware of the prune’s ubiquity in industrial settings.
That’s not to say that the prune was utterly shunned. Classic cookbooks are full of recipes for things like prune whip, prune cake filling and prune pie. It’s just that you probably wouldn’t bring out a bowl of stewed prunes to impress the boss. It’s also worth noting that the dislike of prunes is not universal; they hold a place of honor in French cuisine.
Today in the United States, prunes are actually pretty pricey and the foods associated with poverty include lots of pasta, processed meats and cheeses and white bread. Anybody who has found themselves short of cash before payday has eaten their share of instant ramen and the contents of a grocery basket say much about somebody’s economic status. Our eating habits seem to be as stratified as they were when Daddy Long Legs was released, just replace prunes vs. caviar with mac n’ cheese vs. molecular gastronomy.
Money can’t buy good taste, of course, and plenty of people manage to eat well on a frugal budget but once a food is associated with a negative stereotype, it’s hard to return it to public favor. It has been done (Brussels sprouts) but it takes work or celebrity endorsement. Or bacon. Renaming prunes “dried plums” was attempted but the Sunsweet fruit that I purchased for this project was just labeled plain old prunes. Own yourself, I say, and be a proud prune.
Well, that’s it for the first Eating the Silents. What did you think? Are there any silent movie meals you’d like to see prepared? Let me know in the comments!
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.