‘You either have it, or you don’t’
Have you ever heard someone say ‘Fruitcake isn’t my favorite, but that sure looks tasty’? Or ‘A slice of fruitcake might make a nice change from pie’? No. It’s usually more like ‘Fruitcake! Blechhh. I hate fruitcake’.
Fruitcake is so frowned-upon that there are even jokes about it. You’ve heard the one about there really only being one fruitcake in existence? That it just keeps getting re-gifted? And there is the ‘fruitcake’ pictured at the top of this post. It will ‘never ever get stale’. Basically because you blow it up like a whoopee cushion. And then you don’t eat it.
But I have a confession to make. I love fruitcake. As long as it’s my mother’s fruitcake.
I once told The Dude, when I spied a fruitcake tin at his parents’ house, ‘Gee, I really like fruitcake. Can I have some?’ Big mistake. Somebody probably gave his parents that fruitcake for their first Christmas, and they forgot to regift it.
But Mom’s fruitcake actually gets eaten. Even fought over. At least by those of us who got the Fruitcake Gene.
That’s because it’s mostly fruit and pecans sort of stuck together — with none of that cakey stuff that gets so stale and off-putting. (Oh, and it’s got brandy. What’s not to like about brandy?)
When we were kids in Carlyle, Illinois, we got the pecans from our own pecan tree. The fact that it was indeed ‘our’ pecan tree was disputed by a few other pecan-lovers in our town, because the tree actually grew in that strip of yard between the sidewalk and the street which was owned by ‘The Town’. But, hey. We never saw The Town out there mowing that strip or raking leaves off it, so we claimed it — and its pecan tree — as ours.
Mom told me that she would often pull into our driveway only to find one of her fellow Townspeople harvesting (i.e., ‘stealing’) our pecans. She couldn’t happen but notice that one particular pecan gatherer (a retired police chief, no less) didn’t confine himself to picking up only the pecans that had dropped on the ‘owned by The Town’ strip of yard. Uh-uh. When interviewed for this piece, Mom remarked about this Shall-be-Nameless Guy, ‘He was a real jerk, may he rest in peace.’
Anyway. When she’d wrestled enough pecans away from the neighbors, she’d put us to work. We kids would sit around on the floor in front of the TV, shelling away over big sheets of newspaper (The Union Banner or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, most likely) while watching ‘Bonanza’ or ‘Hullabaloo’ or maybe even ‘I Spy’.
Now let’s talk a bit about the Eating of the Fruitcake. This came after a big Peterson Christmas Feast featuring turkey and the trimmings, plus traditional Swedish Holiday fare like lutefisk, which was kind of like Scandinavian ceviche. The Times once ran a front-page article about lutefisk and how ‘aromatic’ it was (among other things), in response to which I wrote this letter:
To the Editor:
Re ”Forget Eggnog; Bring the Lye-Cured Cod” (front page, Dec. 25):
One solution to the lingering smell of lutefisk is to prepare it as my Swedish grandmother did: bury the fish in the middle of a big bowl of egg custard (yes, really!), which is then baked, complete with nutmeg on top, and served with the rest of the traditional Swedish Christmas dishes (korv, a sausage, is one, but that’s another story).
This takes care of the smell and also provides lots of entertainment at the table as new non-Swedish members of the family dig eagerly into the bowl of custard to find a fishy surprise.
Amagansett, N.Y., Dec. 25, 2002
No matter how you feel about fruitcake, it’s going to sound pretty darned good after dodging a bowl of lutefisk. And the fact that we nibbled on this confection while opening presents and playing games like Scrabble didn’t hurt. Deliciousness by association, you know. Now, I know I already shared this photo with you (in my story ‘The Smarts against the Dumbs’) but this particular shot has a plate with fruitcake on it right there in the foreground:
That’s Aunt Shirley and my Mom and Me and my Gramma P, all of whom shared the ‘fruitcake gene’. Gramma, incidentally, is no doubt drinking Silver Tea, another tasty Swedish specialty. Mom said her brothers ‘didn’t care for fruitcake’, which is polite for ‘they hated it’. My Personal Brother Roger and his wife Nobody-Doesn’t-Like-Jenn are also Fruitcake Haters. This doesn’t bother Mom. She just says ‘that means more for the rest of us’, and sends them fudge instead.
Confession. I’m the only one in my family who got the Fruitcake Gene. The Dude and The Child both being Fruitcake Haters. So, to keep from inhaling my loaf (mailed faithfully to me every Christmas Season by the afore-mentioned Mom), I cut it into slices, which I then zip into those little snack bags and freeze for dignified portion-control. Though in desperation, usually late at night, I’ve been known to pilfer a piece and suck on it frozen.
New York City. December 2015