Fruitcake is probably the most maligned baked good on the planet, the butt of countless jokes, and a dreaded Christmas gift. The website www.basicjokes.com lists 20 uses for a fruitcake that include using it as a boat anchor, a replacement for a Duraflame log, a doorstop, and a pencilholder. Another suggestion is to slice it up and use it for poker chips.
But I love fruitcake – always have and always will – for three reasons. First, I actually like the way it tastes. I like green cherries and candied pineapple and the scent of ginger and bourbon that wafts from the loaf when you unwrap it. When I was a child, I thought fruitcake looked like it was full of jewels, sweet, tasty jewels, and I pretended I was a queen, picking them out of the cake and placing them, ceremoniously, into my mouth.
Second, I’ve read, reread, and loved Truman Capote’s poignant and perfectly written memoir, A Christmas Story, in which he relates the childhood years he spent helping an older and somewhat mentally disabled relative prepare her fruitcakes. When the November cold snap hit each year, she would clap her hands together and say, “Oh, Buddy, it’s fruitcake weather!” And together they’d commence the elaborate process of acquiring the ingredients and baking the rich cakes. They always mailed one to President Roosevelt – and always received a thank you note back from the White House.
Third, one of the people I loved most on the planet used to make and give fruitcakes each year. Her name was Helen Wellbrock, but I called her Henny. Both of my grandmothers had died long before I was born, so Henny lovingly filled that gap for me. She had many signature desserts: butterfingers, a crescent shaped cookie covered in powdered sugar; pineapple upside down cake, which she always made my father for his birthday; poundcakes with colored batter that she swirled together, then covered with boiled icing that cooled into a hard coating; German apple cake; boiled custard; and Carolina trifle. But the fruitcake-making was her biggest production of the year.
She would collect, then cut, brown paper bags to line her cake pans, and cover her kitchen counters with bowls of cracked nuts and candied fruits. In the weeks after the cakes had been baked, she’d continue to “water” them with half-jiggers of bourbon to keep them moist and memorable. She’d make sure there was one for every household in our family, as well as the minister, the next door neighbor, her doctor, the woman who fixed her hair. If she cared about you at all, she gave you one of her fruitcakes.
I hate to think any of her lucky recipients might have disregarded or disrespected the sweet gift that came from Henny’s oven, hands, and heart. Henny has been gone from this planet for over fifteen years now, and I’d do anything to have just one more taste of her spirited, bejeweled fruitcake.