If you don’t like black fruitcake, maybe it’s because you’re just not tough enough.
Sister Kate and I dedicated last weekend to our annual fruitcake-baking ritual, and the loaves are already in the mail to relatives in Texas, California, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Believe it or not, everyone on our list is excited. I say this because fruitcake is the butt of many jokes every holiday.
The darker the cake the better, according to me, and our family recipe for black fruitcake is probably the best in the world and maybe throughout all history. I say this because fruitcake dates back to Roman times, and it included pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. It is said to have fueled Roman legions and Christian armies during the Crusades. One can certainly believe that. I hate to think how many calories are in one slice, but it will keep for a year or more and could be great survival food or fuel for endurance athletes as well as warriors. If you don’t like it, maybe it’s because you’re just not tough enough. So there.
There is a blond fruitcake as well as a darker one, and it is the former that has probably given the genre a bad reputation. The pallid dough contains few fruits and nuts. It is thus a much cheaper cake to make and has long been popular for fundraising drives. I can, in fact, imagine someone writing back: “How much can I pay you not to send this again?” The darkness in our family recipe comes from currants, raisins, molasses, and brandy as well as dates and pecans, candied red and green cherries, pineapple, and citron. Then there are all the spices including mace, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon.
The Roman legions did not have the same recipe, but you get the picture. This is not a cake for the timid.
And you have to have character to bake it. It’s a two-day project for Kate and me. Over the years we’ve been doing this, our responsibilities have fallen into a pattern. I’m the chopper of contents and the main dish washer, and Kate assembles the batter, which takes strength as well as intelligence. I chop for about four hours nonstop; and total assembly of the dough, which must overnight in the refrigerator, takes about 5 1/2 hours altogether. We make two batches, and we’re talking about over 20 pounds of cake. At a certain point, the batter becomes too much for Kate’s big mixer, and she has to plunge in and muscle around with gloved hands or giant spoons.
Of course the fun part of this is all the talking we do while we work, and family memories come flooding back. This time we had ancestral memories from our mother’s side. Our grandmother was from a family of 12 children, and our grandfather was one of 10. Of course sons were a special asset to farming families, as ours were in the South. Imagine not only all the childbearing but the household responsibilities of the women. We have it so much easier today.
Our mother had told us some very colorful stories about one branch of the family; and I sat down at the end of the day, wrote them up, and then Kate emailed them for comment to our generation of that line. Our brother wrote back, “Aren’t we interesting?” However, it was also interesting that not everyone had heard these stories, and there were also discrepancies. Family history is kind of like our fruitcake–full of many colorful ingredients, many spices, and two versions of cherries.
The next day Kate and I filled the tins and baked, working for another four hours or so. It had snowed overnight, and I hit the road with warm loaves as soon as the sun had come out and cleared the way. As I made that 80-mile drive back to Santa Fe through a lot of open range land, I recalled a special fruitcake memory of my own.
I was at the age when I had begun to wonder about Santa Claus, so I devised a test on Christmas Eve. I told my parents that I was leaving a slice of fruitcake for Santa Claus on a footstool by the Christmas tree. The next morning I made a beeline for the stool. There sat the fruitcake, dry and untouched. Looking back on the memory, I thought how funny it is that the fireplace and the chimney in the story of Santa Claus are so vivid that imagination overcomes their absence in the child’s reality. It had never occurred to me to ask, “So, how is Santa Claus going to get in?” As I ate the stale fruitcake, I figured that either my parents hadn’t been paying attention or were ready for me to grow up. The latter explanation was preferable and became my truth.
Interesting how good we are at believing whatever we want–at least for a time. We love stories, and sometimes we love a good story more than we would love the truth. The one survives and the other is lost.
Truth is just elusive, even problematic. Every year when I take the fruitcake packages to the Post Office, the postman asks me the same warning question, something like, “Is there anything in this package that is liquid, hazardous, or perishable?”
The ritual unfailingly gives me pause. “What’s your definition of perishable?” I could ask. But every year I look him in the eye and say, “No.” After all, our fruitcake could last a very, very long time.