Halfway Through May

Kage Baker adored Santa Rosa plums. They were her favourite fruit in all the world, and she waited impatiently all winter and spring long for the first ones to appear in markets.

Santa Rosas are an excellent plum, but they are also small, and have a relatively brief season. They are an old variety, often hard to find among the bins of newer, stranger, larger, more brightly coloured and more durable fruit – plums and pluots the size of softballs, with polka dots and stripes and viral streaking, that will – for suspiciously unexplained reasons – stay hard as a rock for two weeks on the kitchen counter … Kage, an aficianada and a long-time fan of the venerable Luther Burbank ( who first bred them) would settle for nothing but Santa Rosas.

They sometimes showed up as early as half-past May. Other years, they didn’t surface until Kage’s birthday in early June, and rarely made it as far as my own in early July. But when they were around, Kage lived on them.

We found them for one blessed week in 2009 – just one week. She ate dozens in that time, though. I never saw a single Santa Rosa last year, not though I searched fruit stands and farmers’ markets and Whole Food stores galore – no Santa Rosa plums anywhere. Which saddened me; I wanted some to eat in her memory, and also I very much like ’em myself. I was forced to be content with interesting varieties of pluots and apricots, and somehow bore up under the strain …

But now I am beginning the hunt again. I would be very sorry to learn that Santa Rosa plums have somehow vanished south of Pismo Beach. Maybe there is some metaphysical reason they no longer roam where Kage once walked. Maybe I have to go North to find them – the Safeway in Novato, where we once found black apricots, or Mr. Burbank’s own gardens in Santa Rosa itself (where Neassa and Carol Skold are both on staff, he he he …) I will, if I have to.

I’m a devout Californian; I eat fruit that grows here. No December strawberries from Chile for me! I wait for the Oxnard fogs to yield our own berries; I track strange apples down in the canyons of San Luis Obispo, and buy cherries from plywood stands under the olive trees in Gilroy. Damn near everything in the world will grow somewhere along our 1,000 mile long coast – Kage and I hunted from Fort Bragg to San Diego in our time, and I know where all the interesting bushes and trees and vines are … places where you wonder if the green-eyed young man who hands you your overflowing bag of plums is quite human. Shaded hollows under eucalyptus trees where you really rather hope he’s not …

Many’s the time we drove away from some such fruit stand (at least one wall made of an ancient billboard advertising motor oil or chewing tobacco) and Kage would say, “I think he was a yendri.” Then she’d take a mouthful of a Santa Rosa plum, blood-warm from its time in the sun and no more than a quarter hour off its tree, and say, “Yep. Only a yendri could grow this.”

She’d always throw the pits out the car window, to have their chance to be trees. I need to drive up those ways soon, and see if any of her trees are bearing fruit this year.