Monday, May 04, 2009

The Real Meaning of Prunes.

I don’t believe I have ever seen a hotel breakfast buffet without prunes. I don’t need to spell out the reason, do I? We all know that the changed routines of a travelling life can affect the routine of the bowels (in either direction), don’t we? So – hotels provide a nice laxative service at the breakfast bar for those of their guests who are afflicted by one of these two main travel curses.

Or, could there be another story behind the provision of prunes in places of hospitality? One requiring even more discretion? The next time you are standing at the breakfast bar at a nice hotel (and perhaps even more so at a not-so-nice hotel) – think on this: a dish of prunes was once a regular (sorry! couldn’t resist) part of the offerings in a brothel.

Shakespeare knew this, but then he pretty well knew everything that there was to know back in the sixteenth century. One of his contemporaries tells us that a dish of prunes was actually a visible advertisement for the bawdy business: from Lodge’s Wit’s Miserie, or the World’s Madnesse (1596)

"This it she that laies wait at the carriers for wenches new come up to London, and you shall know her dwelling by a dish of stewed prunes in the window, and two or three fleering wenche sit knitting or sewing in her shop. [describing a bawd]"

A dictionary of 1834 (by William Tone) explains the reason:

“Prunes (stewed). Dishes of stewed prunes were kept in brothels, and were thought to be not only a cure but a preventative of diseases contracted there.”

It was also thought at one time that prunes increased sexual potency, so we have three good reasons for brothel owners to keep in a good supply. Closer to our own time, I wonder which of the reasons (bowel, sexual potency, or venereal disease management) the manufacturers of Dr. Pepper wished to disassociate from when they vehemently denied rumours that prunes were an ingredient in their beverage. I guess it doesn’t matter – hot denial of any rumour is always a good marketing ploy they tell me.

Whatever their symbolic or medicinal value, prunes don’t deserve their slightly unglamorous image compared to other dried fruits such as apricots, or ginger, or fat raisins. Prunes are, after all, only dried plums.

In a post some time ago I featured “Unusual Prune Dishes” which included the earliest recipe for an upside-down cake that I could find at that time (1923) – made with prunes, not the ubiquitous canned pineapple rings. There are other prune dishes scattered throughout the blog stories too, if you want to test any of their alleged effects.

For today, I give you a recipe from one of my favourite books, Cre-Fydd’s Family Fare (London, 1864)

Prune Sauce [to serve with pork]
Boil one pound of prunes in half a pint of water until quite soft; add a tablespoonful of moist sugar and a tablespoonful of either rum or brandy. Rub through a sieve, and serve in a tureen.

Quotation for the Day.

Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know.
Groucho Marx.


Kate said...

Love your posts.
Is this why brothels were called "stews"???

KT said...

this was an extra-juicy one! love the quote especially and the tie-in with shakespeare knowing a lot of things... now I know a few more.

Rochelle R. said...

Well I certainly learned something new today :) Never heard of the brothel prune connection before. Around here prunes have such a bad reputation that the box or bag is usually labeled "dried plums" nowadays.