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 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.