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Courtesy of Dole Food Company, Inc.

The Mighty Prune

How an ignoble fruit captured the hearts and intestinal tracts of a grateful nation

By Kelly Luker

MOST PEOPLE CAN'T even think of prunes without a little smirk cracking their face. High-powered Silicon Valley go-getters, tenured academics and stern parents all turn into puerile 8-year-olds at the mention of this tiny dried plum.

So imagine being one of the organizers of the Campbell PruneFestival, which will be going on this weekend. While their peers claim bragging rights to cultural fairs and fancy-schmancy holiday bazaars, the Campbell folk must annually summon up the courage and straight face to say "Prune" and "Festival" in the same sentence. Then, wait for the comedians to take their best shot.

"We've heard it all," Campbell Chamber of Commerce executive director Betty Deal sighs good-naturedly. "We're just 'regular' Joes, we have a 'loose' lifestyle, our festival is a 'moving' experience," she rattles off in a tired voice.

Deal, one of the Festival's primary organizers, tries to chuckle, but it's an attempt at
humor that's unnaturally forced (heh, heh). Enough already. Before we squeeze out one more stinky one at Ms. Deal's expense, let's take a look at exactly why this fruit is the butt--uh, target--of so many infantile jokes by journalists far less sophisticated than me.

First, we will start with the facts that should pepper any good fourth-grade school project. All prunes are plums, but not all plums are prunes. Most plums don't dry that well, so of the more than 200 varieties grown in California, the French import Prunus domestica counts for 98 percent of the action.

With California growers producing about 30 billion prunes a year, our fair state can be considered the hotbed of prune production. And at one time the once-fertile farmlands of Santa Clara Valley led the state's production of prunes.

"Unfortunately, you probably couldn't find a prune tree in Campbell anymore," admits Deal.

No matter; the purpose of this weekend's festival is to celebrate the valley's heritage and to pay homage to what the California Prune Board calls, with due reverence, "the Black Nugget of California."

Besides more than 200 artisans and craftspeople showcasing their wares, Deal promises a special surprise for festival attendees.

"Super Prune is going to be there in a new costume," Deal says. She also confirmed rumors that the normally mute magenta mascot would actually say a few words this year.

The Campbell PruneFestival is not the only prune party in the state, but it's certainly the biggest. More than 80,000 people turned out last year.

Although we have learned the whys and wherefores of the wrinkled food being feted this weekend, we still don't know the "how"--the truth behind the legend. Has the prune rightfully earned its reputation as the colon's friend?

The answer can be found at Sunsweet, the world's largest dried-fruit purveyor. The company's R & D man, Steve Kollars, has been stewing over prunes and their potential for 14 years.

"If you eat a steady diet of prunes," asserts Kollars, "you'll never have that problem." Kollars doesn't need to elaborate on what "that problem" is.

But even the Sunsweet scientist has to grab a cheat sheet when it comes to explaining just how the prune works its magic.

"Prunes are high in dietary fiber," Kollars reads. Turns out prunes kick out two kinds of fiber; the insoluble absorbs water and adds bulk, while the soluble kind forms gels that "lubricate and stimulate shorter intestinal transit times."

Yet there are still more secrets hidden beneath its dried-up demeanor. It being shrunken and all, the prune packs three times the amount of fruit into the system. It also has a special ingredient called sorbitol, a humectant that "augments the intestinal functions."

"All these things add up," explains Kollars, who is a walking promotion for California's black nugget. "I love prunes," he gushes, admitting to a regular diet of them. "And I don't have that problem."

The Campbell prune fest organizer is a little less enthusiastic. "I'm just not a fruit eater," Deal admits. "Though there's nothing wrong with prunes." But Deal pooh-poohs the PruneFestival naysayers. "It's a family festival you can bring your kids to," she says. "And, how can you have a bad time with prunes?"

The Campbell PruneFestival will be held in downtown Campbell (Campbell Avenue and Civic Center Drive), May 20-21, from 10am to 6pm. For more information, call the Campbell Chamber of Commerce at 408.378.6252.

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From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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