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.”