WordPress has a “Just Do It” writing challenge that I decided to participate in. One of the guidelines is that the post be written in response to the challenge. This piece qualifies in the sense that I ‘just did it’. I’d been thinking about the holidays I experienced as a child and had been stumped at how to write about them here and still fit within the blog’s framework of intuition and inspiration. What in the heck does fruitcake have to do with either one of those things? I decided to write the piece anyway, because it felt like a piece I needed to write. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the piece that I discovered the gem of inspiration hidden within: the lessons I learned about being a part of something greater than myself, and the sense of accomplishment that came when I took that first bite of fruitcake I help make.
My Father’s Fruitcake
Long-forgotten, dormant childhood memories rise to the surface of my awareness whenever I see my first Christmas fruit cake. I grew up during the decades before it became a social faux pas to say the words “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” to each other. I grew up when fruit cake reigned supreme as the home-made gift of choice from our household to yours.
This was no ordinary fruitcake slapped together last-minute, either. This was carefully crafted, lovingly tended fruitcake. The preparations for making my father’s fruitcake began every year in that lull between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Again, I grew up when Christmas actually had its own season. The Christmas decorations didn’t appear until after Thanksgiving Day.
The making of the Christmas fruitcake was organized with the precision of a military campaign, and rightly so: my father was a career military officer, and there were a lot of rules in our lives growing up (because we were a large, good Catholic family) in order to (attempt) to avoid complete and utter chaos in the household.
All ingredients that went into the fruitcake were made from scratch whenever possible, and we children helped with the candied fruits. Mother was in charge of the actual execution, and we were given tasks according to our age and manual dexterity.
All operations took place in assembly line fashion, and each child had their station to man according to their age and experience level. Yes, there was a fruitcake hierarchy! In order to someday be promoted to the position of citrus fruit slicer, you had to master the art of safe nut cracker handling and be able to pay attention to directions from the cake-maker-in-chief (aka mother).
You had to demonstrate respect for the sharp knives used to cut the tops and bottoms from the oranges and lemons, and exhibit proficiency at scoring the rest of the skin in a reasonably uniform manner from top to bottom into slivers of a similar width. You weren’t even allowed to attempt handling the knife until you could show you were able to properly remove the peel from the fruit after your older sibling prepared the peel and handed the fruit to you. All pieces were then placed in a bowl where they quality control inspected by the operations supervisor, mother.
This was important to ensure the fruit was properly candied. This portion of the operation was personally executed by the cake-maker-in-chief, so I don’t have the details for it, but I do remember it took a long time to boil the fruit in a sugary mixture at a certain temperature and then arrange it on racks to dry before rolling some of it in granulated white sugar so it could be eaten like candy later. The majority of the sugared fruit – which included maraschino cherries by the jar full, and pineapple, sliced, as well – was reserved for the fruit cake, however, as that was the primary goal of the entire operation. And I remember raisins, lots of boxes of dark raisins. Dates were also a part of the fruitcake recipe, and I thanked heaven that was something we didn’t have to make from scratch. They only needed chopping and rolling in powdered sugar so they didn’t clump together so much.
The younger kids did not get to handle the sharp knives, they got assigned to the nut cracking part of the project. Yes, all nuts that went into the fruitcake were hand-shelled. It would have been a sacrilege to buy them already shelled in bags from the store. The bags of nuts started appearing in the pantry in late October.
I remember burlap bags of walnuts, and smaller bags of almonds, and hazelnuts too. (There was a whole other campaign that involved the making of massive amounts of Christmas cookies, and many of the nuts went into the cookies. It was the walnuts that found their way into the fruitcake, although I remember one year when almonds got added, but were deleted from the recipe the following year. I never learned why. Above my pay grade, as they say.)
The cake batter itself was rich and dark, and was there primarily to serve the function of holding all the fruits and nuts together, and to soak up the (very expensive) bourbon my father used to ‘season’ the fruitcake with as it aged in the pantry until just before Christmas. I do remember that one of the primary ingredients that went in the bowl was Brer Rabbit Molasses.
The bowl my mother used to mix everything together was a massive, heavy ceramic bowl that only made its appearance during this season. When that bowl came out of the storage closet, we all knew it signaled the beginning of fruit cake season in our house. The bowl was carefully washed and dried and took its place on the kitchen counter where it stayed until early December and all the baking was completed.
I told you this was my father’s fruit cake, and I’m sure you’re wondering where he comes into the picture. After the cakes baked and cooled, they were turned out of their baking pans so they could be swaddled in cheese cloth. Each cake was then placed back in its pan and lined up on the counter for inspection by my father when he got home from work. We always cleared two shelves in the pantry and made room for the fruit cakes to season. My father would open a bottle of bourbon and soak each cake with a specific amount of liquor (I don’t know how much he used, I just remember a couple of large bottles were gone through by the time we completed the mission of fruitcake for everyone my parents knew.)
After the first pouring, we carried the fruit cakes into the pantry and placed them side by side on the shelves. If we were lucky, we got to assist in the seasoning operation which then followed every few days until it came time to pop the cakes out of their cheesecloth wrappings and into gift tins and boxes. My father would rotate the fruitcakes periodically according to some preplanned schedule only he knew in order to ensure an even soaking with the liquor. From time to time, in order to check the progress of the “marinating” process, my father would slice a tiny corner from his test cake. If you were the designated assistant that day, and you did a good job holding the bottle in between the pourings, you also got a tiny taste of the work in progress.
At some mysterious point, the fruit cake was pronounced ‘ready’. The packing operation was similar to the preparing campaign in that we worked in assembly line fashion. The fruit cakes were tenderly unwrapped from their cheesecloth coverings and turned into aluminum foil type gift tins. The labeling was always done by my mother. She had beautiful handwriting.
And when Christmas Day finally arrived, there were a couple of fruit cakes left over for our family table. The presents lay in huge piles under the tree, the massive turkey was in the oven, the side board was laden with all sorts of cookies we’d made over the preceding few weeks, and the fruit cake, sliced, rested in all its liquor-soaked glory on its own plate.
Yes, I remember the flavor being intense, likely a combination of the molasses and the liquor. But I also remember the sense of accomplishment as I savored the different flavors of fruit and nuts in each bite. I was able to experience at an early age what it felt like to enjoy the fruits (no pun intended) of our combined labor, and to take pride in the part I played in making my father’s fruit cake.
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for everything that comes to you and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
All original material posted to this site is (c)2012, Julie Marie. All rights reserved.
Photo credits: Wikipedia