Monday, December 9, 2013

Fruitcakes Unite!

Mom’s Fruitcake

Just the word “fruitcake” evokes nostalgia for some and crass jokes from others. It has been the focus of much ridicule by people especially of my generation. Today’s “kids” probably donn’t even know what one is. (Not sure if they’re lucky or not—see I’m still stuck in a fruitcake stereotype.)

I’ll readily admit I’m not a fan of the fruitcake. Maybe it was the rum or the sheer density of the thing. An absolute brick. My mom’s fruitcake probably weighed 11 pounds once wrapped and ready to mail. I remember Dad lugging a couple of these to the post office every year about this time in order for it to arrive before Christmas. I couldn’t help wonder: won’t it be old, stale, inedible by then? I had no idea in my child’s imagination that these things are archival. They literally can last forever. For me now, with both Mom and Dad gone, the fruitcake is a memory touchstone.

Mom would shop for the ingredients because none of it was stuff we had around the house (and believe me, Mom had a Depression Era pantry, meaning she would never run short of anything.) She’d buy candied fruit in little plastic containers—cherries, oranges, lemons—in colors not naturally possible. They looked radioactive. Pulsating. I sneaked one and these alone tasted horrible—and yet they were the fruit, the foundation of the fruitcake. I remember having to crack nuts, pecans and walnuts. I felt like a prisoner consigned to a rock pile. Also I believe the recipe called for rum—and perhaps it was this ingredient that gave it its longevity. Possibly the point was that the fruitcake ferment and take on a life of its own, beyond the 21st century.

BUT, more than this, more than the actual fruitcake itself, comes to me another meaning. Call me sentimental, but it is love. All this flurry of activity cost Mom and Dad time. It meant special shopping and carving out a whole evening for the making and baking. The batter was so thick Mom would ask Dad (Harold come in here a minute) to stir it with a wooden spoon. I’m surprised it didn’t snap the spoon in half. Then the cake had to “sit” to cool. Next it got wrapped and placed in a round tin. Dad had to stand in line at the post office, the weight of 2 of these breaking his arms.

Love because they were never for us. (I think ONCE Mom made one for the family and I remember my brothers making fun of it, feeding it to the dog, etc. If I’d been Mom I would have thrown it at them to shut them up.) She made them for others. I think one went to her Mom as Dad’s mom passed away when I was pretty young. Sometimes Mom would just say it was going to Upper. This was Upper Sandusky for short, her hometown, a place not as much upper as lower on the Sandusky River, but never mind that. Even if Grandma didn’t eat it, others might stop by. It was for the relatives still left in Upper. To let them know they weren’t forgotten and they were special beneficiaries of her fruitcake.

The other recipient was the Wards. Father and Mother Ward were former employers of my parents. They ran a little motor court between Huron and Vermillion in a lakeside community called Mitiwanga. By the time my family spent vacations there in the 70s pollution was chocking the lake and there was dire predictions Lake Erie would become extinct. (And it would have, except for persistent environmentalists and the loss of manufacturing and industry in that part of the country.) Probably for 30 years my mother baked and shipped a fruitcake to the Wards. Even as a kid, I recognized this devotion as love.

So to all fruitcakes everywhere, Merry Christmas! and may you continue to live on, beyond this century, this cynical generation, and find a resurgence in the hearts and bellies of the next!!

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