NYC Union Square Farmer's Market, Photo Credit: j_bary
There are many possible paths to take if you contemplate the life cycle of a piece of fruit. A biologist sees flower, pollen, pollinator, fruiting body, seed dispersal. A farmer sees drought cycles, fertilizer, pests, hybridization, ripeness, seed saving. A poet sees the developing fruit, a blush of color appearing on the skin and then turning to rot, and how it makes them think of rebirth and love and death.
A lover of food sees pies, sauces and jam and hopes that they will catch that fruit at the apex of flavor. I am a lover of food, no doubt, but I am more so a lover of people. When I contemplate the life cycle of a piece of fruit, I taste it in my mind but I also see it passing from one hand to another; I am as interested in the string of people that have touched that fruit, and their cascade of stories, as I am in the fruit itself.
"I have a friend on a Damson plum quest," said my friend Zoe, typing on her computer in Washington, D.C., "do you know how to secure some?" Her friend and colleague is British and was having a homesick craving for this particular type of plum and the jam it makes, supposedly the best. Damsons are easily available in Britain, but after a month of searching in Seattle it felt like I'd sooner spot a hairy-nosed Wombat skulking around my neighborhood than find one of these plums. People had heard of this plum, they thought - vaguely - but no one had ever tasted it or seen it.
This made my quest even more obsessive and the subsequent jam it may spring forth necessarily more incredible in my mind. It is nearly impossible to separate our emotions and our stories from what our taste buds are experiencing, or in this case, may someday experience. I can't imagine contemplating pizza, for example, in a complete emotional vacuum. Impossible. Pizza, the food, is on the same neural pathway as pizza, the memory; grease sliding down the inside of my arm, walking with my brother out of Ray's in NYC, the neurotic buzz of the city rising like steam from the molten cheese.
Whether or not Damson plums truly make the best plum jam or not is purely academic. What is more interesting to me is that when they find their way into this woman's hands, she will be holding on to a piece of home in small tart plum form, and therefore her experience of this jam will be quite different from anyone else's. If I ever taste this jam, mine will be too, just for being on this quest. Of course, it can work the opposite way. Long anticipation and/or work can disappoint you if the final product is less than stellar. This also proves my point, because perhaps you would have been more pleased had you not personally put the sweat equity into the final product. I'm thinking here, right now, of the blackberry wine Langdon Cook and I are working on right now, as I watch it bubble and ferment every day. You can bet, after all this work, this wine will either be the BEST blackberry wine in the world or the very WORST blackberry wine in the world.
But back to plums: I trolled the internets for a local source and came up empty for about a month. No one knew where to find the coy Damson plum, the little bastard being grown somewhere, but not here. Or so it seemed.
And then along came Jenny. She writes a blog called Purple House Dirt, happened to be breezily, innocently mentioning on Twitter how she had some (oh my GOD) Damson plums given to her by a neighbor. I then asked her - someone I didn't really know - if there was any way I might have a small amount from her neighbor, another complete stranger.
Before you consider this forward of me, you must understand that the Seattle Food Twitter world is full of strangers becoming fast friends over staccato bursts of food conversation. These random acts of culinary kindness abound and you need only tap into it to find it. And, whatever, I wanted the damn plums so leave me alone.
As it was, it was my lucky day.
There were still a few pounds left and Jenny could meet me at the Queen Anne Farmer's Market to drop the goods - aka the plums that would come from her neighbor Emma's old boss' 10 year old tree on Lake Washington. From the boss to Emma to Jenny to me, in exchange for my gratitude and a pint of raspberries, and a story.
As it turns out (and this is the very sad part of this story) Zoe told me that her colleague is taking refuge in cooking and jam-making because her husband is very sick. I shared this with Jenny as I took the fruit and prepared it for shipping.
Six pairs of hands will touch these plums before they are turned into jam. My hope, beyond simply that everyone's hands were clean, is that some small piece of refuge will come to this woman in DC that I don't know, that Jenny does not know, that Emma does not know, that Emma's old boss does not know. Zoe tells me she will send some jam back to me for my "troubles" which I will share, in turn, with Jenny and Emma, and Emma's old boss. Perhaps we will sit together, now no longer strangers, slather it on toast with butter, and follow the trail of hands in the life cycle of these Damson plums.
They say it makes the very best jam.