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Taming The Wild Beach Plum

There are certain things you just know. When your boyfriend takes you up to his grandmother's house, sits you down at her kitchen counter and tells you that today you are going to learn how to make the family beach plum jelly, you get the feeling that one day he's going to ask you to be his wife.

Beach plums, on the other hand, are much harder to predict. Some years the fruit shows up, and some years it doesn't. There's really no way of knowing what sort of season it'll be until you grab a bucket and head out to the dunes.

The fall that Alex sat me down in his grandmother's kitchen was a banner year, September 2007. She lives in Truro, Mass., way out toward the tip of Cape Cod, in a squat, square little beach house that she and his grandfather built in the 1950s. I'd never paid much attention to the shrubbery before, but that year, the dunes were absolutely littered with fruit. Twiggy bushes stretched in big, violet waves along the sand — there were gold mine branches along the driveway, plums sneaking out from beneath the deck, and a trail over the dune top where we filled 10-gallon buckets.

During that banner year when the beach plum and I were introduced, Alex and I went picking around his grandmother's house each afternoon. ... We'd pick bucket after bucket and bring the harvest back to his grandmother on her deck, where she'd sit until dark, picking over our haul for twigs and shriveled fruits.

If you've never seen a beach plum, you're not the only one. They only grow in certain places, in sandy, coastal areas with their toes buried near the shore. Growing up along the rocky coast of Maine, I'd had regular plums, of course, but beach plums were something I had never seen. They taste almost exactly like the large plums — only perhaps a bit more tart — but are about the size of a cherry. The bushes are rattled, windblown looking creatures, anywhere from a mere 2 or 3 feet tall to 10, with gnarled, twisting branches stretching out like fingers from their roots. They grow everywhere on Cape Cod, and beach plum jelly is almost as prized a local specialty as fried fish.

During that banner year when the beach plum and I were introduced, Alex and I went picking around his grandmother's house each afternoon. It wasn't easygoing — there was a lot of tromping out across the sand through poison ivy and rough twigs, and always a fair number of leaves catching in my hair — but we must have filled 50 gallons over the course of two weeks. We'd pick bucket after bucket and bring the harvest back to his grandmother on her deck, where she'd sit until dark, picking over our haul for twigs and shriveled fruits.

In the morning, she'd make the jelly. It wasn't a difficult process: Boil the plums with sugar and water, strain the pits, boil the juice with a bit of pectin, and voila — pack it into jars, and that was it. But it was quite a testament to Alex's family line, I thought, that his grandmother at 92 made 250 jars of the stuff.

After watching several mornings in a row, I brought a few buckets home to our own kitchen in Wellfleet, tucked into the woods in the next town over from hers, and tried my hand. I made a batch of beach plum jelly, and then painstakingly picked the pits from the fruit for a few jars of jam. And when I couldn't stand the heat anymore, I threw the rest into a jar with vodka and sugar to make cordial. All winter, we had beach plum jelly on toast, and beach plum jam and peanut butter sandwiches, and we gave away the cordial as Christmas gifts.

It's been two years now since that notable fall. A year later, I became Alex's fiancee, and this November we're getting married. There will be beach plum jam on the cheese plate at the hors d'oeuvres table, perhaps a beach plum chutney alongside a cut of game, and maybe, if we can find enough fruit, beach plum cordial to sweeten the champagne.

It might be hard to predict what the years to come will bring, but it feels awfully good to know I already have a family recipe up my sleeve.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elspeth Pierson
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