Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Happened to Prunes?



I‘m a creature of habit – particularly at breakfast. Unlike lunch and dinner where I don’t want to eat the same thing two days in a row, I’m more than happy to eat the same thing for breakfast EVERY DAY. 

But one day things changed. My younger sister, Tina, was over when I was eating my breakfast. She laughed at my prunes. She wasn’t the first person to make fun of the wrinkled fruit. My daughter, Brittany, thought it was quite funny that prunes resembled the desired after-effect that eating the fruit was supposed to evoke. I could take the gentle ribbing from my child, but my sister’s laughter at the prunes (and the connotation that it was something “old” people ate) was too much for me. 

I stopped eating prunes. 

I recently had an appendectomy. Although my surgeon didn’t know why my appendix became inflamed, or why it would happen to someone with a healthy diet, I decided to take steps to keep things “moving”.
I made a commitment to drink more water, exercise more often, and eat prunes again. 

The problem is I couldn’t find prunes in the store. I looked and looked and looked. However, my observant and more detailed-oriented spouse, CB, found the bagged fruit and plopped them in our Costco cart. I looked at the bag. It was labeled “sun sweet plums”.


All those years I was basing my search on the name “prunes” and bags of “plums” did not compute.  

Now, I’m not stupid. I know prunes are dried plums. As a public relations and marketing professional I can understand the name change. Prunes have a bad image. The word “prune” can mean “to make a facial expression exhibiting ill temper or disgust.”  People refer to old people, or other old things, as shriveled up old prunes. Plus people eat prunes when they are constipated. That is funny too (unless it happens to you and then it is a painfully unpleasant experience). 

Plums, on the other hand, have a good reputation. People use the expression “plum” for referring to  something of a superior or desireable kind, such as a financial bonus or "plum" position. Let’s not forget the nursery rhyme about little Jack Horner.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said 'What a good boy am I!'[1]

Now the poem is supposedly a satire with political overtones, but when I recited that nursery rhyme as a tot, no one explained that to me. All I knew is Jack stuck his grimy thumb in a pie, snagged a plum, and thought he pulled off some sort of heroic feat. Centuries later it left another subliminal message.  Plums are good. Prunes are bad. 

However, I must concede, prunes are funny. I remember back in 1967 I was watching television with my little brother, Terry. A commercial about prunes came on the air. It made us both laugh. It’s worth watching.


But it also made me think. This ad was not only humorous; it was a great marketing campaign. Even as a grade-school-er, I was inspired by it. I thought that if my desire to be a sitcom writer didn’t pan out, I could make my way in society by making fun of fruit and vegetables. Who knew it would turn into a career in public relations and marketing? 

But the story of the prunes took an unexpected turn for me. Rather than having food engineers get rid of the “wrinkles” as they promised in that funny commercial, the marketing folks decided to just change the name.  Shakespeare may have had Juliet say, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And that may be true. But when you change a bag of prunes to a bag of plums, you might confuse a few folks who are looking for prunes to repair their internal plumbing.

Not one to hold a grudge about the name change, I have decided to poke fun of things with a poem of my own.

My gut was full,
intestines stuck.
I looked for prunes
but no such luck.
The name had changed from prune to plum.
I saw it not, gee I feel dumb.
A lesson learned, I do implore,
“read the labels at the store”.
Both prunes and plums will help you go.
But if not careful you may not know
that a rose by another name might smell as sweet
Or be ignored and spell defeat.


[1] Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 234–7.