A Little Fruitcake

I

Making fruitcake with my mother a few years back.

Here are two versions of my meditation on fruitcake, something my mother made yearly and I still make. Yes, I know not everyone is fond of fruitcake. I don’t eat it often myself, but I have relatives and friends who rely on getting it every Christmas. And it has special meaning and memories for me.

Below you’ll see the version that appeared in my local newspaper, the Greenfield Recorder, today. I also recorded a slightly different (and shorter) audio version recently for my local public radio station. You may hear that at https://www.nepr.net/post/fruitcake-does-anyone-it-does-it-matter.

They were both written (and in the case of the radio version read) with heart. Happy holidays. I wish you fun times in the kitchen and elsewhere!

FRUITCAKE WEATHER

Fruitcake is often the subject of jokes. I have been known to sing the novelty song “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” at this time of year myself. Nevertheless, in my family baking fruitcake is a sacred (and fun) yearly ritual that connects me to my late mother Jan and to her late mother Clara.

It’s as much about that chain of bakers as it is about the sweet, fruity concoction it produces.

I’m sure I’m not the only fruitcake baker to have fallen in love with Truman Capote’s story from 1956, “A Christmas Memory.”

This reminiscence sketches the loving relationship in the 1930s between Capote as a child and his cousin, Sook Faulk. Mentally and emotionally, the 60-odd-year-old woman was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”

The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who are nameless in the tale and seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst. The highlight of each year for young Truman and his cousin/friend comes in the late fall.

The two break into their piggy banks, shop for ingredients, and bake 30 fruitcakes. The fruitcakes make their way out into the larger world, presented to people who seem interesting or significant to the bakers. These recipients range from an itinerant knife grinder to President Franklin Roosevelt.

The story is written in the present tense, giving the reader a sense of being a part of the bakers’ world and their fruitcake creation.

“It’s always the same,” Capote writes. “[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces, ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”

I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to other people and to our recollections of those people.

The Truman Capote who is narrating is two decades and more than a thousand miles from his cousin’s memory. Toward the end of the story he explains that not long after the Christmas he recalls in minute detail he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.

Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures—their marshaling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies the whiskey that preserves the cakes—he brings both his younger self and his beloved cousin back to life.

I’ve participated in a fair number of theatrical productions. The only time I ever had to wear waterproof mascara on a stage was when I played the part of the older cousin in readings of “A Christmas Memory.” I couldn’t make it to the tale’s end without crying. I still can’t.

In the story, Capote and his cousin keep scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they receive from the scattered recipients of their cakes, notes that give them a feeling of connection “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”

Cooking gives me that feeling of connection to others every day, but most of all when it’s fruitcake weather. My precise grandmother and my lively mother made fruitcake every year of their lives.

When I make it, I am once more surrounded by the warmth, love, and laughter that filled their kitchens. When I share it as a gift, I also share their legacy.

Mother’s Day Revisited

With Jan/Taffy during her last Christmas season.

A friend recently noted on Facebook that many of us who no longer have our mothers feel as though we are unmoored.

I occasionally have that feeling—but then I remember that my mother is still with me in many ways.

On Friday, I visited my friends at Mass Appeal, the lifestyle program on which I cook from time to time. The young hosts were celebrating Mother’s Day; their mothers were also guests that day and were deservedly feted. (They have raised pretty terrific children.)

For a moment or two I felt a little sorry for myself. I had no mother, I thought, and I was no one’s mother.

Co-host Seth Stutman snapped me right out of that little bout of self-pity. As a tribute to my mother I prepared a salad that featured one of her favorite foods, rhubarb. While Seth and Lauren Zenzie tossed the salad for me I shared the words on my mother’s gravestone.

Her epitaph was inspired by an incident that took place shortly after I graduated from Mount Holyoke. I returned to campus and as an adult (finally!) was invited to the college’s weekly faculty cocktail hour. There I met a retired philosophy professor named Roger Holmes.

“I believe my mother took a course from you many years ago,” I told him. “I don’t know whether you’d remember her: Jan Hallett, Class of 1939.”

My Mother in 1939

The elderly but spry man immediately replied, “Short and full of life!”

Obviously, my mother made an impression. When she died my brother and I decided to inscribe Professor Holmes’s description of our petite, lively mother on her grave.

When Seth heard the epitaph during our cooking segment, he stated, “Well, Tinky, I’d say the same thing about you,” and gave me a big Mother’s Day hug.

He went on to note that he thought of me as one of his “show moms.”

Since I’m officially only 39 and Seth is 31, I replied that I and his other show moms (studio manager Denise and director Deb) thought of ourselves as older sisters rather than mothers.

Nevertheless, I was touched and reassured.

My mother may no longer be walking around the house, but she is present to me—not only in my own small stature, but also in every dish I cook and every song I sing. She will always be with me.

And I may not be a mother, but I am an older woman friend to lots of children (and even a few grownups like Seth!) whom I can nurture and love.

I seldom quote the Bible, but in this case I have to agree with the “Song of Solomon”: “For love is strong as death.” I also concur with lyricist Leo Robin: “Hooray for love!”

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

If you’d like to see the segment (the salad was DELICIOUS!), here it is:

New Year’s Fun

T pulls Tweb

I may be out of focus, but I’m having fun.

Happy New Year!

The days are already getting longer, and I’m smiling a lot.

I am moving slowly but steadily into 2013. (I’ve already managed to write “2012” on two forms!)

I don’t have any resolutions per se because I was already working on lots of projects BEFORE the New Year. I will share a few of them here with you:

I am trying to get my body and my singing voice into better shape.

I am determined to FINISH my book about my mother (the first three chapters are already laid out–hooray!).

I am trying to keep better track of my finances … and to make keeping track of them easier by generating more income.

And I’m trying to enjoy every moment I can.

I have other ambitions, but those are good ones with which to start.

My family and I rang the New Year in with a bang yesterday. I had to test a recipe for molasses taffy so we invited several of my nephew Michael’s young neighbors over to help pull.

We ended up with TWELVE children in my sister-in-law Leigh’s kitchen, pulling and eating their hearts out.

Michael (left) and his friend Jackson were the first pullers available.

Michael (left) and his friend Jackson were the first pullers available.

The recipe will appear in the book about my mother, which will be called “Pulling Taffy.” I haven’t literally pulled taffy since I was a little girl, when my mother often organized taffy pulls for my birthday.

She was a little more organized in the kitchen than I am. Despite my disorganization our crowd had fun making the candy and consuming it. And while the children pulled the grownups chatted about memories and recipes and life.

It was a lovely way to pay tribute to my mother … and to start 2013.

I wish you all good food, good company, and peace. I hope readers will let me know what THEY are planning for this year by commenting below.

Enthusiastic pullers turned into enthusiastic tasters.

Enthusiastic pullers turned into enthusiastic tasters.

Klutz in the Kitchen

I find American food holidays vastly entertaining. I like to imagine a kitchen somewhere in the bowels of Washington, D.C., in which culinary experts sit around a big table … or maybe a work island … and devise these holidays.

I understand some of them. National Oatmeal Month (oatmeal needs more than just one day, I guess) was cooked up (pun intended) by Quaker Oats.

Naming March 17 Corned Beef and Cabbage Day was only natural since that boiled dinner is traditional Saint Patrick’s Day fare.

And calling December 24 National Egg Nog Day fits in perfectly with holiday-party menus.

But … I have NO IDEA why National Doughnut Day is in early June. (June is too warm to be a true doughnut month.)

And scheduling National Blueberry Pancake Day in January doesn’t make sense to me at all, unless one is living in the southern hemisphere. My family eats blueberry pancakes in August when our local low-bush blueberries come into season.

If I were in charge of food holidays, I would definitely change those two, among others.

Unfortunately, if I were in charge of food holidays, I would never come up with today’s holiday, which is perfect for yours truly: Kitchen Klutzes of America Day.

In my house, every day could be Kitchen Klutz Day.

I have always been awkward, in the kitchen and elsewhere. Even when I’m wearing my largest apron food seeps onto my clothes. I can’t measure flour or sugar without spilling some on the counter.

And let’s not even discuss liquids! I literally had to learn not to cry over spilled milk as a child since I would have run out of tears if they had been my response to this pretty-much-daily occurrence.

Despite my klutziness, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and would hang out there all the time even if I didn’t write about food. I love to cook. I love to eat.

Over the years I have become enured to the messes I create in the kitchen. And I have developed mechanisms to cope with my klutziness. I clean up my spills as frequently as I can and schedule my messiest projects just before the amazingly patient and tolerant Vicky (who cleans for me) is due to arrive!

I drink out of plastic cups and dine off of melamine plates in large part because they resist breakage when they tumble to the floor. (I wish I could say that they are unbreakable, but in my experience NOTHING is completely unbreakable.)

And I emphasize taste over presentation in my culinary creations. Over the years I have learned to make my food look vaguely palatable, but I can’t say that I ever make beautiful food. I can say that my food is delicious, however.

How do I plan to celebrate this holiday? Perhaps fortunately, the only folks I’ll be cooking for today are my dog and cat, for whom I plan a little chicken soup with rice. (They love chicken!)

Any spills will be happily cleaned up by the recipients of the food. And we will all live to return to the kitchen another day.

If you have experienced a klutzy kitchen moment (your own or anyone else’s), please share it with other readers (and me!) in the comments section of this post.

And enjoy the day. Remember, tomorrow is National Strawberry Shortcake Day!

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I Must Be in the Right Business

On Friday I delivered a lunch lecture to students at Greenfield (Massachusetts) High School.

The lunch lecture program is a sort of continuing-education feature for the students, although continuing education is clearly the wrong term since these kids haven’t concluded their original educations!

Basically, its aim is to expose them to different fields of study, different people, and different careers as an adjunct to their regular curriculum.

I was asked to talk about my work as a food journalist and blogger, to analyze why I love to write about food.

As you can imagine, this was pretty easy. I explained that I got into food writing the way I get into pretty much everything … by accident.

I went on to tell the students about the ways in which food writing makes my life more integrated, connects me to other people, and enables me to write about any topic I choose since just about everything can be related to food one way or another.

I provided a few examples of this wide-ranging focus, explaining that in the past I had linked recipes to such topics as vintage television programs, women’s history, literature, baseball, and astronomy.

I emphasized the ways in which my writing uses just about every subject I have ever studied. I knew this emphasis would go over well. I remember wondering when I was in school whether anything I was learning would ever prove useful in that far-away land called real life.

(Actually, I haven’t ever found much use for biology in my writing, but I don’t rule out being able to work it into an article or blog post one of these days!)

After this brief survey of my work, I asked the students to identify their favorite dishes for me … and to tell me if they could who had first made the dishes and why these particular foods were meaningful to them.

After the first couple of hands went up and were answered, the room exploded with young people eager to share their love of food and family. Among other dishes we discussed Pork-Fried Rice, Dad’s Enchiladas, Teriyaki Pork Chops, Ice Cream with Lavender Sauce, and several different versions of Macaroni and Cheese.

One student who had studied culinary science (I wish they had had that at MY high school) told me about his own creation for a final exam. He had prepared a breakfast pizza with eggs, cheese, sausage, and a multitude of additional ingredients. I’m sure he got an “A.”

We ended our session with enthusiasm—and hunger. The students themselves illustrated my point that food and cooking are meaningful both as pillars of everyday living and as keys to relationships and memory.

So I’m clearly in the right field. Now all I have to do is make A LOT more money cultivating that field…….

Speaking of school-age children, I’ll close here with an essay I wrote in my writing group last week that touches on my much younger self. We were asked to write briefly about a tree. This is what I came up with.

The Apple Tree

I’m not very old—probably about five, old enough to go to school each day but not old enough to have much homework.

Afternoons after school stretch their arms out to me, full of promise.

My first choice in the afternoon would almost always be to go inside and watch an old movie on TV, preferably one in which Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy harmonize as they sing of their love for one another:

“When I’m calling you oo-oo-oo oo-oo-oo………”

Most days, however, indoor, sedentary pleasures are forbidden by my mother. She wants an active, social child as well as a chanteuse.

Today her prohibition of indoor pastimes is fine with me. I have an outdoor mission.

My slightly older neighbor, Jamie Patrick Scios, has broken his leg climbing on the family television set—how and why no one knows. I am enamored of his crutches.

I have one ambition right now: to climb an apple tree in the backyard, hurl myself out of it, break my leg, and obtain my own set of crutches.

I put my Keds-clad feet in successive elbows of the gnarly old tree until I feel very high indeed—maybe as high as eight feet (which is a big deal for little me). I spread my arms apart like wings, launch my body into the air, and head for the ground.

But … I am small and limber, so after a lovely little whirl I arrive intact on the soft grass.

I try again to no avail. Grr.

I have a feeling my mother must have told the tree to take care of me.

Several weeks later Jamie lends me his crutches. They are a lot more work than I expected.

Thank you, Apple Tree, for not taking me too seriously.

Not the Original Apple Tree

Food and Memory

Today I baked two small loaves of Irish soda bread.

I only make this treat about once a year. Let’s face it: a girl with my generous (some might say overgenerous) shape doesn’t need a lot of sweet breads in her life and in her tummy. I like to make soda bread around Saint Patrick’s Day, however.

Like the shamrock lights I throw on the window and on the piano, the hideous but fun green melamine plates I place on the table, the Irish and pseudo-Irish tunes I sing, and the Belleek bread plate I haul out of the China cabinet, it’s a tradition for me at this time of year. And I’m always careful to give away most of it!

My fingers cruised along the keyboard of my laptop to my food blog to look up the recipe. I know I should print out all my recipes, but then I’d just lose the printouts. (I lose things a LOT.) It’s very handy that the blog never gets lost.

I decided on my traditional soda-bread recipe. Over the years I have also posted one with whole-wheat flour and one with cheese, but this is my favorite.

At the bottom of the recipe I re-found a picture of my late mother Jan (a.k.a. Taffy). She is kneading soda bread. Among the commenters on this post was a Brazilian woman named Andrea who lives in Germany and writes a food blog in Portuguese for her family back home. (I have no idea how she found me!) “The recipe sounds great,” wrote Andrea, “and by the way, Jan is adorable.”

She had a point. Jan is wearing a little green hat and a big green apron. She is smiling despite the flour scattered about the table and the dough half-sticking to her hands. She looks as though she’s having a ball, and I have no doubt she was. She usually did.

My mother was the designated kneader and pie-crust roller in our family. I have learned to accomplish both of these tasks, but I’m never quite as good as she was.

Today’s loaves definitely look a tad rocky. Nevertheless, I like to think I was channeling her just a bit as I kneaded. Thinking of her as I inexpertly pushed and turned reminded me precisely why I decided to call my food blog In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens.

At its best, food doesn’t only taste good (a specialty of mine) and look good (not such a specialty of mine). It also connects us to other people. It connects us to people with whom and for whom we have cooked. It connects us to people who have shared their recipes and skills with us.

It even connects us to people with whom we have merely sat and chatted while chopping, stirring, or kneading in the kitchen. Thinking back over the years, I remember many conversations that took place during kitchen work, which tends to turn into kin work and friend work as well.

I remember being instructed by my grandmother on the proper way to wash dishes. She would be appalled at the way I generally wash them today, but she did teach me the correct procedure, and I can use it if I need to!

I remember the care with which she explained in what order—and in what water temperature—plates, silverware, glasses, and pans should be washed. She was channeling her own adopted mother as she spoke, I am sure.

I remember singing and laughing with my friend Faith as we waited for our penuche to reach the soft-ball stage at my summer home at Singing Brook Farm. It always seemed to take forever. Today when I make fudge it takes no time at all. We didn’t mind waiting, however. We had stories to tell and songs to sing.

I remember teaching my nephew Michael how to stir a soup when he was so little he had to stand on a stool to reach the stove. As he approaches his teenage years he is less likely to enjoy being in the kitchen so this memory is doubly precious. He was serious … and sweet … and VERY impressed with himself and me!

And I remember arguing and laughing with my mother as we kneaded bread.

Memories like these remind me that one way or another we’re always in our grandmothers’ kitchens. They make my soda bread sweeter … and my songs more celebratory.