In Praise of Fruitcake

 “From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.”

I believe in fruitcakes.1  I know—that’s ridiculous.  Most folks hate fruitcakes because they’re hard and dry and filled with citron and raisins and Lord knows what all.  Most are so bad that jokesters rightfully disparage them as next year’s paperweights or doorstops.

            Obviously, those naysayers never tasted one of my Mom’s fruitcakes.  For time immemorial—seventy years, perhaps longer—she perfected her fruitcake recipe, recording her adjustments religiously.  For one single, seven-pound fruitcake, she uses four pounds of cherries, golden raisins, pineapple, and pecans.  For her batter, she mixes just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together, and it’s rich with a half dozen jumbo eggs, a pound of butter, and a magical blend of lemon juice, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.  And when it comes to fruitcakes, Mom’s no tee-totaler.  Her fruitcakes are redolent with booze.  She soaks the fruit in brandy before baking, and, once her baked cakes have cooled, she nestles them in thick layers of brandied cheesecloth, replenished weekly—starting in August when she bakes her cakes and continuing through Christmas when she gives them away. 

            Mom shared her treasured, secret recipe with me, right after two strokes in quick succession left her paralyzed in both legs and one arm.  She was 92 then.  It was the last year that she made her fruitcakes, from start to finish.

            For the next few years, I made the fruitcakes.  Everyone raved, even Mom. To me, however, something magical seemed missing.

            Then, one year, my oldest sister called, claiming the ritual as hers.  Mom had given her the recipe, too. 

            My sister followed it with precision, but as she started spooning the batter into the tube pan, she broke down in tears.  She phoned Mom, who lived just two houses away. 

            “It’s all mixed,” she sobbed, “but it’s not going in the pan right.” 

            “Audrey, bring it on down here and prop me up in bed.  I’ll show you how to do it.”

            My sister went down and propped Mom up.  With her one good arm and all the love and courage that she could muster, Mom packed the batter into the pan, pressing it down with the back of a wooden spoon, as only Mom knows how to do.  Then she adorned the top with a ring of brandied, candied fruit flowers, just like always.  Undoubtedly, that fruitcake was her most beautiful, ever, and it tasted just as first-rate as any Mom ever made all by herself. 

            My sister gave me a huge hunk of that love-laden fruitcake—undoubtedly, the best in the world and, sadly, Mom’s last.  I have it wrapped in brandied cheesecloth, and I keep it in the freezer, the same way that Mom always kept one or more fruitcakes, from one year to the next.  From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.

1 This essay reflects minor revisions to my essay originally published in 2009 as part of NPR’s “This I Believe.”

10 thoughts on “In Praise of Fruitcake

  1. In Praise of Fruitcake – Amen! What a lovely tribute to grandma. They really are the best fruitcakes….though when I make the recipe, I’m slightly partial to soaking it with Jameson. Enjoy!

    • Thanks, Janet!

      As you know firsthand, your grandma’s fruitcakes really are the best! I have tried all kinds of spirits–some really pricey ones–but I have returned time and time again to the same brandy that your grandma always used!

  2. I well remember the fruitcake that Professor Kendrick brought to a literature class. There was some good-natured kidding, including a comment of “What’s that green stuff?” about the cherries, but the cake was delicious and I know of at least one person who came back for a second, larger slice. She may also have taken a third to “give to her mother.”

    • Thanks so much for sharing your recollection! I make a point of bringing cake to my Creative Writing classes because we generally meet Friday mornings (9:00am until 12:15pm or so), and I discovered long ago that the promise of food (especially cake) always seemed to magically increase class enrollment! One semester I walked into class on the first day and someone had written on the board: “We heard there would be cake!”

      Serving fruitcake at the end-of-semester fall celebration was perfect!

      I salute whoever it was who took a third slice, perhaps “to give to her mother.” Mothers, too, deserve cake and remembrances!

    • Thanks, J!

      I confess: I shed a few tears when I wrote the essay.

      I (as the writer) and you (as a reader) confirm what Robert Frost said about writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

      Again, thanks!

  3. I love this story! Brent, your mom is the queen of the fruitcake. And by the way, you make a mean fruitcake too and do your mother proud. I have to admit that I never liked fruitcake until I tasted yours. Yummy. Happy holidays.

    • I love the story, too, because it’s one of endurance, perseverance and love in the face of great odds.

      My mom would love being called “Queen of the Fruitcake!” I remember one year when she made 30+ fruitcakes and shipped them all over the country to family and friends! I like to think that I make a “mean” fruitcake, especially since I use mom’s recipe. This year I believe that my fruitcakes are spot on and taste exactly like mom’s! (I hope!)

      Excellent to hear from you, Cheryl! Happy holidays to you, too!

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