Nowadays, they’re called “dried plums,” but to me, a prune is a prune. My grandfather, Babbo, would have agreed. When I was little, my family often spent the weekend with my grandparents at their ranch outside Healdsburg, north of San Francisco. The best time was late summer, when Babbo would give me handfuls of his big Imperial prunes, which he dried on racks in the sun. Their black, shiny skin gave way to the golden, sticky-sweet interior at an ambiguous point, neither fresh nor dried. I couldn’t imagine—and still can’t—what could be better.
I found something that comes close at Pearl Bakery, one of Portland, Oregon’s first artisanal bakeries. When it opened in 1997, its neighborhood was mainly industrial and the air had the malty, sickly sweet smell of beer brewing in a nearby plant. Pushing open the doors on my first visit, I left that smell behind, and was greeted with the aroma of honest bread. Pearl was airy and inviting, with its high ceiling and a white tile floor with a few black tiles scattered across, as if someone had sprinkled them there. (Later I learned that the builder did exactly that—tossed them from the doorway, and set them where they fell.) Pearl’s crusty baguettes and levain, cakes, and pastries were wonderful. But what caught my eye on that first visit—and led to a burst of civic activism—were the prune Danishes.
With my childhood memories, I would have gravitated to any prune dessert. But prune Danishes were doubly alluring. After high school, I had lived in Denmark for a year as an exchange student. Besides learning to knit socks, I learned to love Danish pastries, which bore no resemblance to the gloppy ones from the American bakeries of my youth. American Danishes were tricky to eat, with the fruit filling sliding silently off its custard shelf. In Denmark, this wasn’t a worry. Golden, flaky pastry, delicately perfumed with cardamom, was generally filled with a thick, delicious concoction of butter, sugar, and marzipan, and occasionally with dried fruits, jams, or pastry creams.
And that is why, when I saw Pearl Bakery’s prune Danishes, I ordered one immediately. In the center of the pastry pinwheel, four prune halves rested on a thin bed of pastry cream. A pillow, really. This was the real thing. Over the next few months, a visit to Pearl Bakery was the answer to most questions. “Where do you want to meet for coffee?” “Can you pick up a loaf of bread?” Or even, “Have you paid the phone bill?” (“No, but I will after I go to the bakery.”) I always ordered the prune Danish. Life was wonderful; spring settled in Portland, and I had found a raison d’etre. But then, as suddenly as they’d arrived in my life, prune Danishes disappeared.
The first time, I tried not to let it bother me. When I didn’t see them, I assumed they were sold out, the only possible excuse for their absence. I was mature about it, and ordered a pear Danish instead. And it was very good. But it didn’t satisfy my craving. I returned a couple days later, and, again, no prune Danishes. This time, I asked, “You guys sure are running out of prune Danishes early. Are they your most popular?” The response shocked me. “No, actually, we’re not making them anymore. They didn’t sell.”
I’m not one to get overly involved in political causes. But now I was confronted by an issue that affected me directly. With a chance to act locally, I undertook a campaign less ‘shock and awe’ than ‘irk and bore.’ It was a steady attack, quiet but precise. And easy. I had noticed a comment book by the cash register. For the next couple months, I practiced a level of self-discipline I hadn’t known before or since. I visited the bakery at least three times a week, and each time, I sweetly ordered, “Prune Danish, please? You don’t have any? Oh well—let’s see. I’ll take a lemon Danish.” And then, while the counterperson plated my pastry, I would lean over the book and write: “Please bring back prune Danishes.” Some days, I ran in just for bread. While the counterperson slid my loaves into their bright blue bags, I headed straight for the book. “Please bring back prune Danishes.”
It was oddly satisfying. I expected little to come of it, but felt I was doing my best and helping my community. My week, once given over to taxiing kids and making pathetic stabs at house cleaning, suddenly seemed to have purpose and structure. (And I was enjoying lots of pastries.) If a few days passed without visiting Pearl, I felt out of sorts, the way people do when missing their exercise classes (or so I’ve heard). Only a chance to make my entry in the book relieved me.
Late spring and early summer passed, and with the seasons, a parade of Danishes. Lemon gave way to cherry, raspberry, blueberry, peach. Marionberries came along, and before I knew it, fresh plums. Meanwhile, my family planned a last-minute road trip. The morning we left, we made a last stop at Pearl and bought a four-pound Pugliese loaf for the road. As my husband paid, I leaned over the comment book. Turning back the pages, I saw my pleas, scattered throughout at surprisingly regular intervals. Wondering to myself if there was any purpose to this, I picked up the pen.
After a few days of driving, I sent a postcard to Pearl Bakery: “We are nearly done with our Pugliese loaf—it has served us well. Please bring back prune Danishes.”
Once home, I went to Pearl with a friend, and, of course, they didn’t have prune Danishes. I duly commented in their book (habits, even good ones, can be hard to break). Standing at the counter, I noticed a small photo album. Leafing through photos of the bakery’s beginnings, I found my postcard staring up at me. Tickled, I showed it to my friend.
But this was a mere hint of what I would feel one morning a couple weeks later. I walked into Pearl and, out of habit, glanced at the Danishes. Sitting there, as if it did every day, was a platter of prune Danishes, labeled “Italian Plum Danishes.” Quickly, lest they be snatched away, I ordered one. At the cash register, the comment book was gone. I found a table, and sat down with my Danish. After a couple minutes, a counterperson walked by. I flagged her down. “When did you start making prune Danishes again? I’m so happy to see them back!”
“Oh, we just started again—we’re calling them Italian plum now. We used to make them, but no one ordered them. People don’t like prunes. But someone…” She stopped herself, took a step back, looked at me, and practically gasped. “You’re the prune Danish lady!” I smiled; my lengthy campaign worked.
Pearl Bakery now sits in the middle of a busy, fancy shopping area and holds steady, offering dependably well-crafted breads and pastries. Nowadays, I generally order their gibassier, an anise-and-orange-scented sweet bread. But I always look at everything they have, because whenever they have Italian plum Danishes, I always say the same thing: “I’d like a prune Danish, please.” Babbo would have been proud.