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Volume 15, Issue 51 ~ December 20 - December 26, 2007

Nutty for Fruitcakes

You don’t like them? Send them to me

Let them eat cake.

–Marie Antoinette upon hearing the people had no bread: 1770

This is the time of year when Ms. Antoinette speaks my kind of language. I only wish my doctors were tuned in. Year ’round, they tell wife Lois Don’t let him eat cake.

The him is me. And all but Christmastime, seeing I’m diabetic, I’ll go along with the prohibition. But not from late November through late January.

That’s cake time; rich and sugary fruitcakes come out of ovens, and I’m in the kitchen looking over the shoulder of the cook at the stove. Fruitcakes are a Burton tradition; no one made one better that Grandma Burton at the old, big wood-burning stove in New England.

Even during the lows of the Great Depression, at this time of year she served me a generous slab of fruitcake with a dab of homemade whipped cream atop it after she read me the poem “Sugar Plum Tree.” It became a tradition not broken until I joined the Seabees and wasn’t around to listen. When I was in the Pacific, she sent me a fruitcake. It’s a good thing they have a long shelf life, because it took almost a month to reach me.

Even though Grandma’s cake didn’t have brandy or rum (only twice in my life did I even see her sip a small glass of wine socially; she didn’t like the taste of alcohol), while that big fruitcake lasted I was the most popular patient in the Navy hospital. I dispensed it frugally; no one but me got a portion bigger than a thin slice. The nurses gave me long backrubs and the medics went easy on the needles. Doctors let me take walks. Sadly, Christmas comes but once a year.

Thank You, Millie DeBlasi

As this Christmas approached, I felt a nagging uneasiness. After I wrote last year about the miscreants who ridicule fruitcakes and those who make them, a Linthicum woman — like me, a product of the Great Depression — sent me a fruitcake as tasty as any I had ever enjoyed. I hid it from watchdog Lois — not because I was selfish but because I didn’t want her to know how much smaller it became each day. I did increase my insulin intake.

I planned to call the lady who baked the cake and find where she got the recipe for such a treat. But before I did, a few maladies struck and I was in and out of hospitals for months. During my absence, Lois threw away the empty tin; she didn’t know the baker’s note with her address was inside. So there was no way to reach her. I felt lower than a skunk with an enlarged scent sack. What would she think of me with not even a note of thanks?

The other day, the phone rang. On the other side was Millie DeBlasi, curious what I thought about her fruitcake — and wondering whether I ever mentioned it in a column. I was as happy as if it was another cake. I could thank her, and I could learn the source of the recipe. The cake was so good its recipe must have been passed down from generation to generation.

But there was no such story there. Years ago, she clipped it out of a newspaper, liked it and has whipped some cakes up ever since.

Millie was even poorer than the Burtons. Her mother and stepmother died early, and her father barely kept things together, so nothing like a fruitcake was ever served. When she finally tasted one, she liked it. Couldn’t understand why they had such a bad reputation (this year they were listed Public Enemy Number One for Christmas gifts) and wanted me to come to their aid again. With pleasure I oblige her.

Millie’s cake is called a Canadian fruitcake: more nuts and less fruit such as rinds of oranges and lemons, just enough brandy, moist, and one piece can’t do. I learned she did what my grandmother did to test doneness: She used a straw from the broom. If anything stuck, it wasn’t done. She’s a bit embarrassed that one of this year’s cakes crumbled as she turned it, which is a first, but I reminded her that crumbs, chunks or in one piece, a good fruit cake tastes the same if it’s like hers, with cherries, pineapple, dates, pecans, dark and light raisins, brown sugar and peach brandy.

Fruitcakes of History

My friend Alan isn’t much for fruitcakes; presumably he has only tasted low-priced commercially made ones. Each Christmastime a friend gave him one. He would store it in a cool place until his wife Carol attended her office Christmas party with a gift exchange. Then he would rewrap it, and off she’d go. “It would be ripe by then,” says Alan, “soaking in all that brandy for a year.”

Johnny Carson is said to have quipped on his TV show that he figured there was only one fruitcake in the world; same one just keeps goin’ ’round and ’round.

I got to thinking about that. There could be fruitcakes circulating out there that are 20 or more years old. Know what? I wouldn’t mind tasting a few. No dish I can think of has the life expectancy of a fruitcake. It lasts longer than a piece of wedding cake in a freezer. Sometimes longer than the marriage.

I sometimes wonder whether Cleopatra wooed Mark Anthony with a fruitcake; they’ve been around since ancient Rome. The first were of pine nuts, raisins and pomegranate seeds. Later came honey, spices and preserved fruits: a cake fit for royalty — and only royalty could afford them.

After sugar to preserve the fruits became more affordable in the 16th century, lucky commoners shared in the delight. When fruitcakes came here via early Americans, more nuts were added. Here, nuts were plentiful and less expensive, and early pioneers were a frugal lot. Also the combination of more nuts and fruits brought out the flavor of a new generation of fruitcakes. The English fruitcake is rather bland, but popular for high, low or any-time tea.

Incidentally, the phrase nutty as a fruitcake came about because American fruitcakes contained so many nuts.

Texas and Georgia are well known for their commercial fruitcakes, thanks to the availability of pecans in those regions in which Collins Street Bakery and Claxton Bakery are located. Both have many followers, seeing that in these days many housewives don’t care to spend the long hours needed to whip up a cake with such an ill-earned reputation.

Here’s what they think of fruitcakes in Manston, Colorado. They have an annual fruitcake toss (I’d like to be in the outfield) and the record is 1,420 feet, achieved by a compressed-air cannon. What a waste.

To me, if anything is tastier than a fruitcake, it could only be a mincemeat pie; they’re one-two on my wish list. When I head to deer camp the day after Thanksgiving, Lois always gives me a pumpkin pie and a mincemeat pie to share — and every year only the pumpkin pie survives the drive to Garrett County. And there was a piece cut from that. I know good sweets when I see ’em.

Enough said.

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