“Fruitcakes make ideal gifts because the Postal Service has been unable to find a way to damage them.”
Whenever jokes begin to circulate about how awful Christmas fruitcakes are, I always think, “You’re just saying that because you haven’t tasted ours.” I’m referring to the Heath family recipe sister Kate and I began making soon after I settled in New Mexico in 2005. Black fruitcake it’s called, and we prepare it for family and long-time friends, who seem to consider themselves truly blessed.
This year, we decided to devote the Thanksgiving weekend to this project, but not until after we had dressed up and pampered ourselves with a wonderful lunch at the Blue Heron Restaurant at Sunrise Springs, a resort just outside of Santa Fe. Kate had the traditional turkey, but I had salmon with a pecan crust. I like turkeys, and it’s tough to be born one in the US, so I would rather eat something else.
A friend was going to join us but had to cancel at the last minute, so the reminiscing that we typically do during our baking saga began early. Food was very much on our minds, and when Kate shared that her favorite soup is lima bean and okra, I burst out laughing. You have got to be kidding!
This reminded us of the “okra joke.” This is a story told by an old rancher, Joe M. Evans, who was a friend of our father in El Paso. Later, Kate copied it for me to include here. It appears in a tiny book titled After Dinner Stories collected by Mr. Evans. Here you go:
For several years my wife has been telling me she was very fond of okra. I contended she didn’t know how it tasted, because it always slipped down your throat before you had a chance to taste it. Not long ago the cook out on a certain ranch had some okra left over from dinner; he took it to the back door to scrape it out. Two old hounds were always stationed at the back kitchen door to grab every crumb that was thrown out. One of them grabbed this okra and swallowed it down so quick that he thought the other dog got it. He jumped on him and you never saw such a dog fight that did take place.
The setting at Sunrise Springs was lovely, and we rambled around taking pictures before we headed home for a traditional game of Scrabble. Kate beat me 325 to 256, but only because I got many vowels to her high-value consonants, several of which she deployed on “triple word” squares. In triumph, she set off for home about 85 miles south of Santa Fe where we would bake fruitcake the next day.
This is a two-day operation, because the dough has to overnight. I’m the chopper—pecans, dates, crystallized pineapple, and crystallized cherries both red and green. Citron comes pre-chopped. Kate mixes the dough, which also includes many spices, raisins and currants, dark molasses and brandy. When it’s all put together to overnight in the refrigerator, it weighs 24 pounds.
This phase, which we started after lunch on Friday, takes about four hours. It’s tiring but we have a good time just talking about everything under the sun including memories. (I imagine masculine eyes rolling up to the ceiling.) Really, it’s fun. The Heaths are big on words, and if our brother had been with us, we would have heard many wonderful Western stories.
We were tired at the end of the day but packed up to drive to a restaurant about 30 miles away (Kate lives out in the country) where they have a deep-fried green bean salad that I love. When we got home, Kate closed the big gate to her property and set about chopping up the apples she feeds to the neighbor horses every morning. I read a bit in the manual for my new camera. Very exciting.
The next morning after Kate had fed birds and horses, we set about preparing 22 little loaf pans for the baking, which takes 2 ½ hours at 250⁰. Afterward, Kate, who is a numbers and detail kind of person, thought it would be fun to collect statistics. So she sat down and meticulously totaled up all the calories we had combined—about 46,000 altogether. The dates and pecans have the most. Based on the size of each of the pans, she figured that a ½ inch slice of fruitcake would be about 200 calories. We considered again the wisdom of making a batch and burying it on the property somewhere for emergencies.
We couldn’t bake everything at once and you have to start off with a cool oven, so Kate still had baking to do when I set off early in the afternoon with 12 loaves, still warm in the back seat of my car. I didn’t want them in the trunk in case I got rear-ended. What a tragedy that would be. I’m the one who takes care of the mailing of fruitcakes, so that’s coming up shortly.
Our family recipe of black fruitcake is nothing like the icky, pale loaves that come in tin cans at the store, and without exception, everyone we share it with thinks it’s delicious. I’ve even had friends ask if they could buy a loaf. I thought about that Sunday evening and called Kate, the numbers person, thinking it might be fun to figure out what we would charge, based on her figures about the cost of ingredients and our labor, of course.
We finally figured out that we’d have to charge $25 a loaf, based in part on an hourly wage for each of us of $25. That was a bit of a comedown for Kate, who makes almost ten times that as a software consultant. It was a real lift for me, though, since I make only $12 an hour tutoring English. When “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” as Robert Frost wrote, I may have taken the wrong one, financially speaking.
But fruitcake-baking is a not-for-profit ritual, a wonderful sisters’ time, and it’s fun to think about how much everyone will enjoy it and all the memories that will surface with brother Biggy in El Paso and sister Ann in San Francisco. One of my own memories is how one Christmas Eve I laid a trap for truth on a foot stool in the living room. I was beginning to wonder about Santa Claus and announced that I had left a slice of fruitcake out for him. The next morning, the slice was still there on its plate, even though gifts had appeared under the tree. OK. Got it. But it was all right. I was ready for the truth.
So one more year of a tradition sustained, and what a nice one. Simple things. They really are the best. And I think that everyone enjoys our black fruitcake in part because it’s flavored in part by the pleasure we take in making it.