When Christopher was little, I used to read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” aloud to him every year around this time, in the weeks before Thanksgiving. It’s about fruitcake, and love, and loss. I made another fruitcake today. Here is an essay I wrote two years ago after I made a fruitcake for the first time.
Today I did something many would consider unpardonable: made a fruitcake. Now it has to “cure” until Christmas — it’s wrapped in whiskey-soaked tea towels. I have no idea what it will look or taste like by Christmas. Either we’ll have a new doorstop or I’ll eat the whole thing myself because no one else can abide fruitcake.
I don’t know what possessed me to take on this complicated baking project. I used my grandmother’s recipe, which must be at least 100 years old. I’ve never made this cake. I had to interpret some of the directions — how much flour is in a pound? Sugar? What is a “slow oven?” How stiff should the egg whites be beaten? And the directions told me to put the fruitcake on an “asbestos mat” in the oven, so I had to scratch that, of course.
My grandmother was evidently famous for her fruitcake. I never knew her or ate her fruitcake — she died before I was born. I have her red hair but none of her artistic talent. I guess I should say I “had” her red hair — that, like the bloom of my youth, has long since faded.
For some reason, and I wish I hadn’t now, I copied her recipe onto an index card and tossed the original, which I now vaguely recall as a typewritten sheet of onionskin paper. This was way back in the 70s. I remember sitting in my mother’s kitchen and copying recipes she’d clipped or kept onto cards, transforming what I thought was a messy pile into a tidy, indexed box. In those days, I was always trying to impose some kind of superficial order over chaos, and maybe that’s what I thought was doing then.
There were many signs from God that I shouldn’t make this fruitcake. Yesterday I was about to get started when the doorbell rang. It was Roberto, my neighbor. He asked if I’d watch his younger son for a while so he could take his oldest to soccer game — his wife was having hair done.
The youngest had the flu, he said. I repeated slowly, “He has the flu?” hoping he’d get the hint. But he didn’t. I couldn’t think quickly enough to say no, I can’t possibly — my fruitcake will be at a very delicate point. So I went over and sat with Gabriel for a while, trying not to breathe or touch anything. I was there only a short time, but just long enough to make it too late to start fruitcake.
This morning I thought I’d get an early start — making a fruitcake takes a while, and then it bakes for 3-1/2 hours! I suddenly realized that the pound of raisins I bought wouldn’t work. They were dark raisins, and of course you use golden raisins in fruitcake. The recipe just said raisins, and I didn’t stop to think about it. So I went to the farmer’s market and came back with my pound of golden raisins.
Then I discovered that somehow, the candied pineapple I was sure I’d bought was nowhere to be found. Another trip, this time to Trader Joe’s, but the only pineapple there is coated in chili powder and that’s a bit too “fusion” for me. So on to the supermarket.
When I got back and began to assemble the rest of the ingredients, I saw that what I thought was a 5-pound bag of sugar in my cupboard was really flour. Did I mention that I don’t bake much? Back to the store again. By this time I was feeling irritated with the whole project.
I had lots of help and support from the family with the cake. David poured himself a little snort of the whiskey and said it’s just fine. At one point Christopher came in and looked skeptically at the bowl of fruit and nuts that will be folded into the batter. “Is that lunch?” he asked. “No,” I said with some asperity, “It’s going to be fruitcake.” He looked at it again. “With chicken in it?” I patiently explained, as one would to someone with very little sense, that those were dates, not pieces of chicken. I worried briefly about how he’s going to make it in this world, unable to distinguish dates from chicken, and thinking that fruitcake could include poultry.
I poured the batter into a tube pan that belonged to David’s great-aunt Marie. She died in 2005 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. She, like my grandmother, was famous for her baked goods and I had the pleasure of eating lots of her cookies and pies. I’ve never used her pan, and as I rinsed it I saw just a few crumbs from what must have been a long-ago angel food cake she made.
There was a mix of satisfaction and wistfulness in making this cake. Its fits and starts gave me time to appreciate how much time and effort went into these seasonal fruitcakes that were given as gifts decades ago. There was a certain sadness in remembering Marie, and in recalling my 17-year-old self, who believed that an orderly recipe system could somehow solve much larger problems. Stopping to sit with a flu-stricken child gave me a chance to be neighborly, much as one might have been in leaving a fruitcake, heavy with nuts and spirits, on someone’s doorstep.