A Linguistic Look At A Beloved New Orleans Fruit
#NewOrleans has a long history of mispronouncing and misunderstanding words, whether it be the names of the Muses used for a cluster of streets uptown, the funny way we locals say Burr-gundy street, not Bur-gun-dy street, or the broken English I was used to hearing from my grandfather, who grew up in #Sicily, and my father’s butchering of the English language who had no other excuse except that he grew up in New Orleans. There were the often made-up words like zink for sink and bagousa for bathroom which we thought was #Italian but, trust me, do not go to Italy and ask for the bagousa. You will get stares of disbelief and head shakes when you proudly repeat the once-thought-of-as-Italian word for bathroom which is in reality a nonsensical word. Later, we learned that the word was a corruption of backhouse, another name for outhouse.
These plants are abundant in New Orleans today and it is possible that they were brought to the area by #Sicilian immigrants. I say that because I have not seen early references to them as I often see figs and other fruits in the early 1800s and because they are plentiful in the suburban areas where the Sicilians settled. The first true mention of Japanese plums grown in Louisiana was in the May 29, 1883, #Lagniappe column of the Times-Picayune and it was a bit of a riff on the fruit from the Detroit Free Press,
“Did you ever eat one of those Japanese plums grown in Louisiana? If you want
something good wrap a piece of roller composition up in a piece of sheepskin and
call it a Japanese plum.”
Later, in 1903, the Times-Picayune paints a lovely picture of a town just north of New Orleans called, “Amite City, The Queen of the Florida Parishes, Prosperous and Happy.” In this article #Amite City is called the “great strawberry and Japanese plum parish of the State.” Amite City was heavily settled by Sicilian immigrants and the area continues to be a strong-hold of Sicilian-American families in the region.
We had one in our yard, along with every other edible vegetable that will grow in the area, and when they started to get ripe it was a time for celebration for us kids. It meant that soon we would be able to swim in our pool and that school would soon be out. Our dad would throw bunches of Japanese plums in the pool as a treat to eat so we would not catch a chill getting out the pool. We would eat the sweet, juicy fruit from the comfort of the water and spit the large, brown seeds on the ground outside the pool. Our dad also used to make a sort of fake amaretto with the seeds. Take the seeds and soak them in vodka or Everclear, wait a few weeks and the liquid turns a lovely amber color and definitely had that nutty amaretto flavor. He never was a drinker, in fact, I never saw him drink the stuff—never thought about that until now.
What I found interesting was that many African-Americans in New Orleans call them “#misbeliefs” and I find this fascinating proof of a direct link between Sicilian immigrants and the African-American population of New Orleans that was already settled in the area. The name “misbeliefs” has been accepted as a misinterpretation of the Italian word for the fruit, nespoli, however, I contacted my eighty-something year old cousin in Sicily to get the Sicilian word. She sent via What’s app a word and a recording of her pronunciation of the word, niespuli. This sounded so much more like “misbelief” so it made sense that this could be the word that was corrupted. One step further, there was a time that this fruit was believed to be related to the Japanese medlar which is part of the genus Mespilus and was, in the past thought of as Mespilus japonica which could be directly related to the Sicilian word and that at one time the “n” could have been vocalized by the letter “m.”
If this is true, it provides a glance into the relationship between newly arrived immigrants and their African-American neighbors. These established Americans adopted what they thought was the name of the fruit from those who introduced it to them. Sharing food has always been a way to introduce people and perhaps the lowly Japanese plum opened the door for a foreign community to find some acceptance in their new homeland.