I’ve been thinking about my grandmother this afternoon, having just tucked a fruitcake based on her recipe into the oven. From what little I understand about her, I gather that she was well-known and admired for her cooking skills, especially her fruitcake. This was among her circle in Kentucky, where such things mattered. I should have made the cake a week ago because it requires curing and feeding with bourbon for eight weeks, but life interfered. So far I have mustered the courage—and the money—to make fruitcake only every other year since I first tried it, because although I enjoy the task, it’s a pricey and time-consuming job.
My grandmother died four years before I was born. I have her name, but only scattered and faint hints of what she was like. She came from a big family, but had only one child herself, my father. She was 38 when he was born in 1918, a time when that was considered a very elderly age for motherhood and when only children were less common. In this photo taken with her parents and siblings before she was married, she is in the back row on the right. As in the few other photos I have of her, her expression is serious, unsmiling.
My mother described her mother-in-law as tall, somewhat intimidating, and not very warm. She and my aunt wickedly coined the nickname “Big Red” to signify my grandmother’s height and hair color. My mother also told me that when my father was young, my grandmother referred to him as “the boy.” I don’t know what to make of that remoteness, and there’s nobody left to ask. My father said little about his mother. I recall a single anecdote: his ire at her refusal to let him drive her car. He swiped the keys one day when he was about 16, had his own set made, and absconded with the vehicle, which I somehow envision as a big, black Packard. I don’t know the rest of that story, either, whether they had a roaring fight when he came back home, or whether she reported the car stolen.
I can’t tell if this hand-painted bowl is evidence of her artistic talent, or of her boredom and discontent. China painting was a fashionable hobby at the turn of the century, but today as I chopped dates and pecans and stirred bourbon into the batter I wondered if her alleged austerity and coldness manifested unhappiness with a life in which women’s options were limited. Maybe she dreamed of going to art school and painting huge canvases instead of bowls. Maybe she wanted to be a master chef, rather than turning out fruitcakes at Christmas for family and friends.
I don’t know what my grandmother would have thought of me, one of three grandchildren she never knew, or of my attempts to make her fruitcake in late middle age. The cinnamon I used today came from a brand-new jar labeled “Saigon cinnamon.”
I’ve never heard of it or used it, and I’m sure she would have considered it utterly exotic and possibly suspect. I’ll have to trust that Saigon cinnamon will stand in good stead for the plain old variety. If the fruitcake turns out, in six weeks I’ll parcel out a lot of it to give away—the recipe produces a gargantuan 13-pounder! But I’ll hoard plenty of it for myself, too, to cut into the thinnest possible slices and eat in her memory.