West of Woolwich: In defense of fruitcake

Posted Wednesday, December 12, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: In defense of fruitcake

... or, beware the commercial alternatives

by Fred Kahrl

It has become a seasonal staple … mocking the appearance of the once inevitable Christmas fruitcake. Some of our nation’s most able and enduring humorists have turned their talents to

deriding this sometimes dull-to-dreadful Christmas confection which all too often is not a product of a home kitchen but instead is a mass-produced lump of indifferent cookery, laced with ingredients that guarantee a long shelf life and a dreadful taste and texture.

Why would anyone send such an object through the “mails” as an expression of affection for the intended recipient?

Perhaps it is because the sender was fortunate enough, in seasons long past, to have received a homemade fruitcake that actually begged a year’s expectation, and provided several days of tasty amendment to (perhaps) some eggnog or other Christmas comestible.

Mother’s cake was such a cause for such anticipation and celebration.

So much so that, when she passed, my eldest sister-in-law embraced the recipe and carried on the tradition, much to my relief and delight in particular.

Mother was denied the daughter she so hoped for through her childbearing years. In fact, I suspect that my very late arrival on the family front was a last desperate effort to break the curse.

Not to be denied some of the intended benefits of having a daughter, she made sure that I learned how to run the ringer washer, hang laundry, iron clothing, run the sewing machine (after a fashion), and know my way around the kitchen. In the latter case, I was the indentured assistant to fruitcake creation.

Hailing from a second-generation missionary family in Syria, Mother was absolutely at ease mixing with the wide variety of ethnicities around us in the moderate industrial city where Father taught college English. Not one but two rail lines ran from Hoboken to the Great Lakes through our city, and through the years had carried immigrants straight from Ellis Island to multiply the success of our local industries.

And with them came many unfamiliar tastes that required local support.

Such was the Mohican Market, where I tagged along in the wake Mother’s formidable mass on the quest for all that was required to raise her fruitcake high above the ordinary or mundane.

This was more like an open-air market … today quaintly called a Farmers’ Market … even in the depths of an Appalachian Winter. It had the high ceilings of a warehouse, with an exposed steel spiderwork of beams and trusses, where often there were a few pigeons moving here and there. The large bare lightbulbs under their industrial style metal shades failed to properly light the scene below, creating the impression of being in a smoky hall.

If it was heated, it was only to just above freezing. Mother blended in with all the other women wearing old wool overcoats, their heads wrapped in large, colorful kerchiefs, feet in plain brown laced shoes … shuffling over the concrete floor … shopping bags hanging from their arms.

The rough wooden tables were overloaded with bulk fruit and vegetables, many of which were not to be found in the Thursday newspaper fattened each week with grocery ads for mainstream brands and flavors.

At back of the hall, men in white clothing and aprons and paper hats were butchering whole sides of beast, often as the customer stood and pointed and instructed in a heavy, unfamiliar accent. Chickens and fancier fowl were also being executed and butchered, their squawks like accent marks penetrating the hubbub of busy buyers.

Mother shopped here often for general fare, but today we forged ahead toward the aisle where the nuts and dried fruits were to be found. All of the products we passed had arrived in bulk … there was not a traditional bottle, jar, box or can of product anywhere to be seen. Even the sardines came in five-pound cans with heavy keys spot-soldered to their bottoms to roll off the tin tops.

A small jar of pickles was always a gallon or more, and oils, vinegars, honey, molasses and such came in nothing smaller than square five-gallon cans. You could buy less only if you brought your own mason jar, and many did.

But it was the shallow wooden boxes that fascinated me most … especially those in our destination aisle. I felt as though I was in an Arabian bazaar, each box adorned on one end with brightly colored decorations of palms and sand dunes and camels and turbaned heads. Other scenes were even more exotic, the gay paper labels adorned with the fascinating twists and turns of foreign script and printing.

Here concessions were made to customers in the form of those little white boxes now in common use for take-out oriental fare. However, they did not come in delicate sub-sizes. The vendors would inevitably start a sale by reaching down below the tilted table-top and then produce a “box” that would hold more like 3 pounds of citron, of dried pears, cherries, apricots, figs, giant raisins, etc.

Mother, however, had earned her chops in the bazaars of Beirut, and would not be intimidated. Her voice would rise easily above the din, requiring smaller containers which ... generally ...  wouldn’t hold more than a pound and a half.

Into her great canvas shopping bag would go each heavy box, one after the other, each packed by hand under Mother’s eagle eye.

When we returned home, the shopping bag was heavy with more than just additives for the cake recipe. Figs, dates, candied cumquats, several kinds if nuts, and a fresh Florida orange for the toe of each Christmas stocking … each associated with some Christmas memory brought across the ocean in Mother’s heart.

Now my work began, dicing all the big hunks of citron, halving the cherries, prying the walnuts and almonds out of their shells and parsing the sticky raisins so they would not clump in the batter.

Mother would concoct generous quantities of batter in her largest brown stoneware mixing bowls and then fold in the piles of “fruit” I had been instructed to prepare. She would then hold the big bowl in the curve of her left arm and, with deft jabs of a large wooden spoon, perfectly pour the mix into the metal baking pans lined up on the kitchen table.

The gas stove’s oven made the kitchen a sauna even on the coldest winter evenings, and by the time the third batch was baking, we would have flung the kitchen door open to the night air. It was not uncommon for snowflakes to float in.

Father could sense the change in the dance of flames in his fireplace, even with the door closed to his study, but he knew better than to complain.

When the last batch came out of the oven, every flat surface in the kitchen would be covered with fruitcakes. We would have to eat breakfast the next morning in the dining room.

The next day Mother and I spent wrapping the cakes in wax paper and Scotch tape, followed by Christmas wrapping and a simple ribbon and bow. When I was very young, I remember Mother writing a separate, personalized card for each wrapped fruitcake, but that wound down to simple tags as the years passed.

Father only ate Nabisco Shredded Wheat in those days, and we saved the boxes all year because they were just the right size for shipping fruitcakes.

That is, after I had added a few layers of newspaper.

Then I would wrap each box in brown paper for Mother to hand address. At first she didn’t trust packing tape, and would add brown string, which meant my putting my finger on each knot as I had when the ribbon inside was tied. The feeling of the second half of the square knot sliding off the end of my index finger seems only a day old.

The counterman at the Hoffman Street Post Office would roll his eyes when we came through the door, with me tugging my wagon full of Christmas gravity and Mother grumbling about the most recent one cent increase in postage.

Of course, after I was sent away to school, Mother cut back on both the quantity and complexity of her annual “caking”. But quality endured, even after Supermarket condiments simplified the Mohican Market experience.

Now my niece and her sons have taken over the tradition from her mother, promising us at least a few more years of Christmas delight. My family is a bit thin in the area of sustained seasonal traditions, so this one is of particular importance.

And it really does taste great. No Joke!

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