A Little Fruitcake

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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.

A Cup of Kindness

Happy New Year!

We’re in the midst of a frigid early January in most of the eastern United States. The year is still new, however. I like to make resolutions in early winter. I don’t see these as punishments for the person I was in the past. They are simply guidelines for the person I hope to be in the future.

I have never wanted to join the throngs in Times Square and other metropolitan areas to see in the new year. My New Year’s Eves tend to be quiet and reflective. I don’t always manage to stay up until midnight. (As my father often pointed out, it’s always close to midnight somewhere in the world.)

I DO always sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Like people the world over, I find the song’s nostalgic words and tune appropriate for a time in which we look simultaneously to the past and the future.

I am struck by the words “a cup o’ kindness.” I know the cup in the song is definitely alcoholic. I like to think of it in different forms, however—a sweet cup of sugar or a rich cup of cream. Whatever the cup holds, it’s a delightful concept.

As I lift my own cup, I have many resolutions. I hope to launch my new rhubarb book with fun and flair this coming spring and to perform in a 1918 centennial concert in the summer. This year is replete with musical 100th birthdays, among them those of Leonard Bernstein, Alan J. Lerner, Robert Preston, and my mother.

Jan/Taffy wasn’t a musician, but she was a great lover of song. She sang every day of her life and taught me that practice as well.

Above all, I hope we can live in a world where we pass around cups of kindness daily: for Auld Lang Syne, to make the present sweeter and more peaceful, and to teach younger generations to share love and kindness on a daily basis.

Father’s Day

My father, probably in the mid to late 1970s. I think EVERYONE should have a black and white portrait taken by Bachrach. It’s definitely posed–but it definitely looks like him!

I promise not to meditate on every single holiday we come across. I’m sure my readers are busy feting fathers today and may not have time to read or comment! But … after church today–in which we celebrated fathers past, present, and future; biological and spiritual–our minister Cara said to me, “You had a pretty special father yourself, didn’t you?” And I had to agree that I did.

My father Abe came from a family that didn’t speak English at home when he was small; he, his parents, and his brother and sister came to the United States from Poland when he was 22 months old.

Abe grew up feeling like an outsider in American culture. He wasn’t a bitter outsider, however; he was a curious outsider. That curiosity garnered him many friends and nurtured his greatest professional strength: his ability to make often unexpected connections between disparate people and ideas.

His family was matriarchal, headed first by his maternal grandmother and upon her death by his mother. So he grew up expecting women to be smart and to run things, an expectation that made him a joy to deal with both at home and in the workplace.

He was fun and funny and gentle and told whimsical stories that delighted adults and children alike. I wish I could say I have figured out how to emulate his charm. It combined humor (which I have) and an ability to talk off the cuff (which heaven knows I have) with something I simply can’t definite or identify or replicate.

Thinking about him also leads me to recall other father figures in my life. There are fewer of these than there were mother figures to conjure up on Mother’s Day; like my father, I grew up in a matriarchy. I was lucky enough to have several wonderful men in my life when I was young, however.

I love to spend time with my mother’s brother Bruce, who just celebrated his 91st birthday with great fanfare. Uncle Bruce loves to play the patriarch, a tendency that occasionally gave me inappropriate giggles when I was younger. Nevertheless, he is a patriarch with an enormous heart. When my mother and I met him for lunch almost exactly a year ago I noticed that she couldn’t help smiling when she looked at him. I know exactly how she felt.

The Siblings enjoying each other’s company in July 2011

Today I also remember my friend Buddy, who made New York City even more exciting and who honored me by treating me like a second daughter both in the city and in the country. Buddy embodied so much joy and spirit that if my family was stuck entertaining one of my father’s more staid colleagues we’d invite him and his wife Bobbie over as well. With Buddy sitting at the table and at the piano, a boring dinner party was transformed into a festive night to remember.

I think about my neighbor Harrison, who never had any children of his own but who sheltered, informed, and praised all his nieces and nephews (including honorary nieces and nephews like my brother and me). Harry was the only person I have ever known who could whumsle (simultaneous whistling and humming—in harmony!). It was an honor to hear him launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” on special occasions.

And I smile whenever I think of my Uncle Jack, another honorary uncle. He and my mother decided when they were in their 20s that they must have been siblings separated at a very young age since they were both loud and funny and smart (and both WASPs, unlike their spouses).

Most of all, I think about my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather was a sweet but mysterious figure who unlike my father felt overwhelmed by the matriarchy in which they lived; I can only recall him speaking more than a word or two at Passover, when he read from the Haggadah. Despite his silence we knew he loved us deeply.

My mother’s father was a much louder presence in my life. He was quite elderly by the time I came along and had little patience for small children. He often made the tiny Tinky furious by silencing her with a glance or a few choice words. Nevertheless, he was a warm man at heart.

One day at my grandmother’s house in Vermont the impatience and the warmth intersected.

Some imagined infraction on the part of my brother David, my cousin Tommy, and me launched our grandfather into a tirade. We youngsters retreated from the house into the yard, smoldering with resentment.

We decided that the time had come to assassinate the old man. The boys formulated a plan by which I was to distract Grandpa and lure him to an open area in which they could shoot him with their bow-and-arrow set.

(In retrospect I think I should probably have nixed this plan since as the distracter I was probably in danger from the bows and arrows as well, but my peril wasn’t obvious to me then. In retrospect I also realize that it’s pretty difficult to kill someone with rubber-tipped arrows. But I was only five at the time.)

Before we could put our plan into place, our grandfather called us into the house, gave us big hugs, and reinstated himself in our good graces. We decided to let him live. His rages (and ours) were happily short lived.

This week I once again rejoiced that we spared him. By chance I came across the letter he wrote my mother, his eldest child, on her 21st birthday in 1939. Here is a bit of the advice he shared with his “Punkins”:

Sir Isaac Newton was a dreamer. If he hadn’t been the falling apple wouldn’t have inspired him to think. The trick is to dream and be practical too. The great lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers, philosophers, for the most part have been great because of their ability to translate their dreams to practical application.

I hope that like my mother I can take these words to heart and combine a romantic spirit with a core of common sense. I’m grateful for the wisdom of my grandfather, my father, and all the nurturing men in my life.

If you have a chance, please remember someone special in the comments below. Happy Father’s Day!

My Grandparents in the early 1960s. We were always happy to see my grandfather smile!

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Mother’s Day

My mother loved celebrations.

Mother’s Day is perfectly gorgeous here in western Massachusetts: perfect May weather. Our early lilacs are brightening up the landscape, and a few apple blossoms and daffodils remain.

In church this morning our minister, Cara, suggested everyone quietly name a mother who deserved remembering on this special day. I mentioned my mother, Jan (a.k.a. Taffy) and then heard my neighbor Alice softly say the name of her own mother.

Alice’s mother Mary Parker (whom we all called Gam) was a grandmother figure to all of us children in the neighborhood, one of the strong inspiring women of my youth. She was admirable, funny, and fierce.

Hearing that name made me think of so many other mother figures I celebrate today, including Gam.

I recalled my own grandmothers, Clara and Sarah, as well as my beloved aunts, Lura, Selma, and Connie.

I recalled my godmothers, Kay (who was named poet laureate of the state of Delaware) and Dody (who SHOULD have been named poet laureate of French film and key-lime pie). Both went to college with my mother.

I recalled my mother’s other close college chums—smart, fun women who taught me a lot about female friendship: Sylvia, Riley, Giff, and Bobby.

I recalled my mother’s other smart close friends: her partner in business, Claire; her partner in singing, Bobbie; and her partners in bridge and neighborhood gossip, Randy and Annie.

I also recalled some of the female teachers who have made a difference to me: Helen, who taught Sunday school and encouraged my personality (not that it needed a huge amount of encouragement); Bebe and Ma’am, my second- and fourth-grade teachers in two very different corners of the world; Penny, who taught me to play chords on the piano and to love music always; and Desley, Shelley, and Janet, who helped me survive graduate school.

It made me sad to realize that of all of these women only a few survive. Most of the teachers are still around, and my Aunt Lura is still with us. My mother, our other relatives, and most of my mother’s friends (except for the redoubtable Claire and Bobbie) are gone.

Nevertheless, my overall feeling was and is one of celebration that I am lucky enough to have been cradled by so many remarkable women over the course of my life.

I hope to continue to find mother figures as I age. (Someday I will have to turn 40.) And I hope to serve as a surrogate mother to others in their life journeys.

I realize that most of my readers are busy celebrating Mother’s Day today—but if you’re reading this at any time please take a moment to leave a comment below naming a mother figure who has helped shape you.

Writing her name and recalling her influence on you will make you feel mothered all over again. I promise!

Happy Mother’s Day … today and every day.

Esther, our church choir director, send these lovely roses home with me today in memory of my mother.

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.