A Holiday Memory

Posted by Toni V.S. | 3:36 AM | 2 comments »

MAMA’S FRUITCAKE: MORE THAN A TRADITION

It's my birthday today. Today I'm sixty-five, and I'd like to share with you a memory from my childhood....

It’s that time again: Autumn, with crisp winds, falling leaves and holiday cooking. Once again, the television comics will dust off their fruitcake jokes, especially the one that declares there’s only one cake, passed from generation to generation. I listen to those jokes and smile indulgently, because to me--as to many people from the South--this delightful concoction of dried fruit, nuts, and a taste of wine is more than just a dessert. Like my Mama’s fruitcakes--her creations weren’t simply a holiday tradition; they were a ritual....

Every Fall, under the trees stretching from my grandfather’s house to the pasture gate, my cousins and I gathered pecans, carefully peeling away the little green jackets that attached the nuts to the tree limbs. Any that were lightweight or had a tiny hole drilled in one side (a sure side of the pecan borer’s presence) were disdainfully cast aside. Only the best went into Mama’s fruitcake. The grown-ups supplied us with nutcrackers, but we all knew that the best way to crack a pecan was with one’s hands. Two pecans were placed on the palm and the hand closed about it in a fist. Then the other hand simply squeezed the fist, and the pressure of the two nuts against each other cracked the shells! Only adults could do this. I can remember my pride the first year I was able to perform this feat!

After being sorted, the nutmeats were stored in a clean Mason jar to await Mama’s return from the grocery store. She would arrive laden with supplies--candied citrus, green and red cherries, all in their hard plastic containers.

Taking a large enameled dishpan bought specifically for this purpose (no mere mixing bowl was big enough), she produced her recipe, worn and tattered and marked with batter stains, its origins and first maker long forgotten. Then, she got out her wooden mixing spoon, announcing “Fruitcake is always best when stirred with a wooden spoon.

While she was making these preparations, I was busy, also, cutting the nutmeats into small pieces, with a few of the best shaped ones set aside to go on top of the cake. That task finished, I next cut the cherries into halves (again selecting several for the top) . It was also my duty to prepare the cake pan. Making a brown paper cut-out of the center of our angel food cake pan, I carefully brushed paper and the pan’s interior with butter, then dusted both with flour, applying a generous coating of white upon myself, the kitchen table and the floor, as well!

At this point, I was banished from the kitchen. Not that there was anything secret about mixing the ingredients, it was simply that Mama didn’t want to be distracted. It was only after she was finished and ready to pour the cake into the pan, that I was allowed to return.

Want a taste?” Of course, I nodded enthusiastically, and was given a teaspoon of spicy, fruit-filled cake dough. Then, it was poured into the paper-lined pan and into the oven it went!

Soon, the most wonderful smells wafted through the house. Visitors at the front door remarked on the delicious blend of ginger and cinnamon floating in the air. Darting into the kitchen from time-to-time, I wondered if we should check on the cake, but Mama was adamant: the door remained closed except for the last ten minutes, when cherries and pecan halves were pressed into the top of the cake.

Once an inserted toothpick came away clean, the masterpiece was taken from the oven and set to cool. Afterwards, it was placed on an ornate glass cake plate. To be cut? Of course not! Now, it had to age! (This is where all those old joke originated, I suppose--since fruitcakes usually had wine in them, aging is the best way to bring out the flavor.) With an uncut apple nestled in its center (“to keep it fresh”), the entire cake was wrapped in cheesecloth and set on the sideboard. At Thanksgiving, several thin slices, barely bite-size, would grace the dessert tray beside mincemeat pie and cups of ambrosia, but it wasn’t until Christmas morning that the fruitcake was officially cut. That was when my father brought Mama her Christmas “breakfast”--a thick slice of fruitcake and a glass of frothy, golden egg nog. Once she took the first bite, the entire cake was available to anyone who wanted a piece!

Every year when the weather changes, and the calendar tells me that it’s only-so-many days before Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think of Mama, toiling away in that hot little kitchen, busily mixing that wonderful concoction in that big enameled pan. I’ve tried her recipe many times, but somehow, it never tastes the same. There’s something missing, something that only Mama and those long-ago days could supply--a little bit of Ritual, a little bit of Tradition, and a whole lot of Love!

2 comments

  1. Beth Trissel // December 31, 2007 at 8:13 AM  

    Charming story, Toni. Thanks for sharing. Very brave of you to announce your birthday age and all!
    Or should I say 'very confident?'

  2. Mary Marvella // January 4, 2008 at 8:33 PM  

    Yeah, Toni. I remember fruitcake baking, too. Such a comforting tradition, even though I didn't like fruitcake.