Sunday, November 26, 2006

Passing the torch

I was so lucky in the grandmothers I had. On my father's side, there was the swashbuckling, salty, but surprisingly feminine and sentimental gambler. On my mother's side, there was the youngest daughter raised to be the son on the family farm. I never felt anything but unqualified love from either of them, although when I look back on it, I think my sister probably was more my parental grandmother's cup of tea. My mom goes on to this day about the similarities in their personalities.

Anyway, my mother's mother, although completely hopeless at housework (because of spending her formative years doing farm chores) somehow grew up to be a wonderful cook. A wonderful baker, anyway. What I remember most is the hot applesauce she would serve at dinner, and the apple cake she taught me to make. And fruitcake.

Most people don't like fruitcake. Everybody likes to make jokes about it. I, however, have always loved fruitcake, especially the kind my grandmother made. It is different from other fruitcakes in a couple of ways. First of all, it is made with dried fruit that is candied ahead of time. No nasty citrons or weirdly preserved cherries. We candy the fruit ourselves, which is why the fruitcake takes two days to make. Secondly, there is no alcohol infusion, or alcohol of any kind in this cake. My grandmother was a strict teetotaler. This is a genuine Midwestern fruitcake.

My mother has also made fruitcake, for as long as I can remember. It's been a long time since I lived at home, and even longer since I was young enough to enjoy doing things in the kitchen with my mother, so I don't actually remember ever helping out with the fruitcake. (What I do remember are the little sailboats my father used to make out of the half walnut shells left over after we had cracked all the walnuts for the nutmeats to go into the cake. They had little origami paper sails on toothpick masts, and were painted beautiful colors, and were truly wonderful.)

Be that as it may, my mother has continued making fruitcake all these years, even after all her children have left and her marriage has dissolved, all by herself. She's been thinking about stopping, but she likes having it, so finally (why didn't this occur to me sooner?) I asked her to bring all her stuff over to my house so we could make it together. (No way I'm taking that job on all by myself.)

So she came over on Wednesday, and we commenced to candy fruit. Ziad peeled and cored the apples, Maya and I sliced orange peel and dried fruit, and my mom sliced some and supervised some. Then we boiled the syrup on the stove and were on our way. And guess what? It really wasn't that much work. My mom had this enormous energy rush going, like she was going to power through some enormous all-day kind of task, which is probably what it has been for her, doing all that prep work alone year after year. With four of us working (and two only sporadically) it only took a couple of hours. Plus, it was fun being in the kitchen together.

On Friday, she came over to finish up the cakes, and again, much less work than anticipated. Especially since Ziad got goofy with the flour, so I made him clean up the kitchen. I feel so bad that she went through that all by herself for so long, but she never made any attempt to include, invite, or solicit help, so I just didn't think about it. The last thing I want is for the fruitcake tradition to end when she gets too tired, though, so I need this transition period to get me going.

I wonder, though, if I'll ever get to the point where I make it on my own just because. Ziad and Maya don't seem to like it, although Jennifer does. My own sister didn't like it as a child. She claims to like it now, but I'm not sure I believe her. Since she lives in Massachusetts, and I don't, I don't think we'll be making fruitcake together any time soon. So unless Ziad and/or Maya see the light, fruitcake may die out from this branch of the family in the not-too-distant future.

Now I have about seven fruitcakes on my counter, and I could eat them all myself. I always start out wanting to give fruitcake to all my friends, but then I think about how everyone maligns it, and I wonder, "Will they give this fruitcake a chance? Are they going to love it as much as I do? Will they appreciate it? Maybe I should just make them some cookies." The spirit of Christmas, indeed.

11 Comments:

Blogger Lesley said...

I'll be more than happy to take one of your hands!

In our family I guess the traditional Christmas dish is tamales. Two years ago I went to my grandparent's house for the express purpose of video taping my grandma making these tamales. (For decades she has made them for the entire family -- by herself.) Well--- the camera died during filming.

In a few weeks I resolve to try again! 'Cause when grandma goes - I'm afraid the tamales will go with her. Maybe with a video and recipe, we can remember how she did it.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I volunteer to come over and help you! (Make them, that is.) I love tamales. That's probably a better Christmas tradition than fruitcake, when you stop to think about it. Definitely healthier, anyway.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Zelda said...

My family doesn't have a traditional Christmas dish but Rick's family has julekagge...Danish Christmas bread. It employs candied fruit much like fruitcake but uses cardamom and is definitely more like a very sweet bread than a cake. Its yummy.

Owing to not having any sent to us last year (lumps of coal were given in lieu) I took it upon myself to make the d*mn bread myself. It wasn't bad for a first go but its a lot of work.

How long do they keep? I think it would be the perfect thing to have to discuss "Letters"...homemade and salt-of-the-earth.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Zelda said...

By "they" I mean the fruitcakes.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Vivian said...

This is so beautifully written, Sarah. And I so envy all of you for having such family traditions. We are working hard to set up some traditions for our small family so Henry will have something to remember.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Zelda said...

Yum. Worth every minute...well, for me anyway...seeing that all I had to do was eat it.

5:20 PM  
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