“Wait, you’ve never had a plum?!”
My father stares at me, incredulous. It is mid-May, 2015. My father, mother, and I are sitting at our kitchen table, talking over empty dinner plates and full stomachs, like we have done most nights. Our light-brown wood table has hosted twenty-five summers’ worth of dining and divulging. Tonight, my mother and I have been discussing what dessert to bake for Memorial Day Weekend. She and I have always been avid bakers, and can often be found sifting flour, cracking eggs, and rolling dough together. After bouncing around our options (apple pie, blueberry cheesecake, red velvet cupcakes with buttercream frosting), we (well, I) turn to my father for input. I’m not sure why I do, as he never eats anything we bake from scratch. He prefers store-bought desserts, loaded with sugar and difficult-to-pronounce chemicals.
When asked, though, he suggests we make a plum cake. Silently, I think, Why is he proposing this specific dessert, especially one my mother, nor I, have never baked? And why plums? Instead, “I’ve never even eaten a plum!” pours out my mouth. My father’s disbelief, combined with his continuous quest for storytelling opportunities, propels him to answer my unspoken questions.
My father’s roots have their origin in Bridesburg, a neighborhood in the Northeast section of Philadelphia. Historically, Bridesburg has been the home of Polish Americans. Around 1885, Polish immigrants settled in the area. In order to hold onto their culture, they successfully petitioned for their own parish (St. John Cantius, which still exists) and opened traditional Polish delis and markets. Even today, Bridesburg offers authentic Polish eats (including babka, kielbasa, gołąbki) and Polish language classes at several neighborhood parishes. My father’s paternal grandparents were two of the many Polish immigrants who established a new home in Bridesburg. Their son, my paternal grandfather, decided to stay in Bridesburg, creating a new home for himself, his wife, and his three children, just as his parents did decades prior.
While this historically-Polish neighborhood cultivated my father’s family history, it isn’t the only thing that has threaded generations. When my father recalls both his grandparents’ house and parents’ house (his childhood home), he remembers a single food item: plums. His grandparents’ house had plums on a vine-like branch growing up the side of the exterior. They are the reason why his father decided to plant a plum tree in his own backyard. The plum tree, unanticipated by my grandfather, ended up thriving, rapidly. Dad tells me that when Grandpop “got too lazy” and stopped trimming the branches, a massive garden of plums materialized. The backyard, he claims, was covered: “We ended up having more plums than we could ever eat. We constantly asked our neighbors if they wanted any because we had too many. We couldn’t even walk around without stepping on a fallen plum. You know that phrase, ‘Walking on eggshells’? Well, we were tiptoeing around plums. Even the dirt seemed tinged with purple.” He laughs in the way that only my father laughs: heartily, head slightly thrown back, full of promise.
His face lights up as he continues. He recounts that the plum tree was akin to a decorated Christmas tree. All the plums simply hung on the branches, waiting for onlookers to admire and appreciate their worth. The best ones, my father describes, were at the very top: “We could never reach them. Sometimes, Aunt Chris and I used to stand out in our yard and wait for one to fall. It never took too long. They were always falling because of how many grew on that vine. We used to call it ‘plum showers,’ as if we had our own kind of rain, our own form of magic.” After the storm, my father would pick one off the ground, lightly squeeze, acknowledge the softness, and bite into the deliciousness. It’s how he learned about the fruit’s ripeness. I watch him as he closes his eyes, his mouth forming a teethless grin. He exhales an Mmmm of delight, of remembrance.
When he snaps out of his faux plum-coma, he divulges the best part of having all the plums: that they allowed his family to create and give. With all the plums, Dad reveals that Grandmom used to make any and every kind of dessert she could think of. “Plum tarts, plum upside-down cake, plum crisp, plum cake. You name it, she made it. And everything she made was the best. Better than anything you could buy in any store. Heck, we never even bought desserts at the store. We had Mom.”
He tells me she used to give her creations to their neighbors, to the homeless people who knocked on the backdoor of the bar (my grandparents owned a bar), to store owners throughout their neighborhood. It didn’t even have to be a holiday for Grandmom to bake and share her desserts. The acts of creation and giving occurred year-round. When I ask him what other people thought about the desserts, Dad can’t contain himself: “Everyone loved them,” he says proudly. “People looked forward to her plum treats. What’s important, I think, is that no matter how many times my mom provided a dessert, nobody ever took her or the offering for granted. They always seemed surprised, were gracious, and thanked her. My mom wasn’t just ‘The Plum Lady’ or our family ‘Those People with All the Plums.’ She was Mildred and we were the Brzyski family.”
And that’s when I get it: why Dad only eats store-bought desserts now; why he’s frazzled over my never tasting a plum; why he suggested we make a plum cake. My father’s plums were the way his family gave back to the community that welcomed them. The plums allowed his family to repay Bridesburg for providing immigrants a home and for sustaining and supporting their culture. The plums were a means through which his family was remembered by others, how they can continue to live on now. Without someone to carry on this plum legacy, without someone to sift through the sweetness and tartness of my family’s narrative, the thread holding together generations could unravel.
I venture to the grocery store to pick out ingredients for the decided-upon Memorial Day Weekend dessert. I immediately head to the produce section, toward the plums. I remember what Dad has told me about knowing when they’re ripe: a light squeeze, soft but not too soft, smells like a plum (which is so Dad of him to say). I pick one up, do everything I’m supposed to, and then do something I’m not: bite into it. I can’t help myself; I need to know exactly what I’m working with for the first time. Waxy skin, tart juice, my father as a young boy, my grandmother’s cutting board dyed purple. I nod, knowing these are perfect. I leave with two full bags.
We are back in the kitchen, but not for dinner this time. My mother is my sous-baker, as I am spearheading this dessert, one I hope my father will agree to eat (or at least try). As she slices plums, I combine dry, beat wet, mix well. We both spread in the sheet and line plums throughout. I eagerly pace as it bakes, am impatient as it cools. Have I done well? Have I made them proud? I need to know.
Finally, it is time. Mom tries first, as she is an honest judge. “Really good,” she says. “Could use less nutmeg, but the plums are so flavorful.” I’m relieved, but only slightly. Two more critics to go: me and the man of the hour. I decide I want us to try it together, at our table where we have eaten memories for so many years. “DAD! I need your help,” I yell into the living room, as I cut a slice for each of us. From there, I can hear him excitedly say, “Something smells good!” which he rarely ever says when Mom and I are baking. Upon entering and seeing my creation, he pauses. I’m unsure if he’s surprised, happy, or upset. I can’t read him. “Will you try it?” I ask, but it comes out more like a plea. He sits in his usual spot, picks up a fork. I’m so nervous that I forget I should be doing the same, as he cuts off a piece of his slice with the edge of his fork. I watch him bring the piece to his mouth, eat, and close his eyes and mouth to chew. I have forgotten to blink and breathe.
And then he reacts in the way that only my father reacts to something like this: he laughs, heartily, head slightly thrown back, full of gratitude.
Plum Cake with Brown Sugar Crumble
(Adapted from Kraft’s Plum Crumble Cake)
- 5 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 c granulated sugar
- ½ c milk (I use 2%)
- ½ c packed brown sugar
- 1 package (3.4 oz) JELL-O Vanilla Flavor Instant Pudding
- ½ c softened butter
- 2 eggs
- 3 c sliced, ripe plums
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- Heat oven to 350ºF.
- Combine flour, dry pudding mix and baking powder in small bowl.
- Beat 1/4 cup butter and granulated sugar in large bowl with mixer until blended.
- Add eggs to butter and sugar; mix well.
- Add flour mixture to large bowl, alternately with milk, mixing well after each addition.
- Spread onto bottom of 13×9-inch pan sprayed with cooking spray; top with plum slices.
- Mix remaining butter, brown sugar and nutmeg in small bowl until blended; crumble over plums.
- Bake 37-40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
- Cool completely.
Laura Brzyski is a writer and dog lover based in Philly. She received her MA in English from Lehigh University, specializing in medieval literature. After, she spent four years as a high school English and Creative Writing teacher. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) at Rutgers-University Camden, where she also teaches. More of her work can be found on her website, Laurabrzyski.com.