Opinion

No Fruitcake Jokes Allowed!

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If you think fruitcake season is over you are wrong.  It’s been around a long time.  I am told that after the civil war, when there were more widows and spinsters than men left in the United States, the ability to acquire the ingredients for fruitcakes was almost impossible.  

Now the internet makes putting together a perfect fruit cake almost a walk down memory lane.  But still, making a fruitcake is an all day struggle.  But it used to be worse.  

A good fruit cake can be light or dark, and also the puddings.  They stay fresh a long time in the fridge.  We used to put ours on the back porch in winter.

From every culture that migrated to America, there is almost a sacramental meal of joy intact around some sort of cake or pudding recipe dependent on the regional or treasured imported fruits, sweetening, wine, flour and nuts.  

So don’t be silly and laugh over the heavy, hard rock cake sent through the mail these days from cooks who have spent days creating these seasonal gifts of time, strength and a tradition of love.  YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN A TREASURE.  If it gets dry you just souse it in wine or brandy.

A fruitcake has to sit awhile, preferably while soaking in wine.

Fruit cakes made a comeback in the 1880s when conditions in the nation improved slightly.  And the reason almost every family had one favored recipe for the “family fruitcake” is that resources had to be pooled.  And then the cake...which took days to put together...was served at the end of a generational meal.

My maternal family treasures a plethora of recipes calling for such uncommon flavorings as rose water and lime peel, imported from India.  Rose water makes a huge difference of flavor and delicacy in white fruitcakes.  

All the recipes are treasured relics of time gone by...you might think.  But let’s give a hand to the Romans who probably stumbled upon the earliest creation of a fruitcake around the time of Jesus’ birth.  They used barley flour (easily available and affordable), pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, figs, honey and wine to make a ‘doughy sweet bread’ that was probably communal and celebratory.  So we have been working at this creation for a long time.

There is a homey unsophistication about fruitcake as we know it in these parts.  The regional American Indian recipe for Indian Pudding harks back to food in America before the explorers and the Pilgrims.  Corn flour would have been mixed with fruits and berries, honey, nuts and eggs...and corn did not exist in the holy land until long voyage trade routes were established, even though some Biblical translations use the word corn for grain.  

I was amazed to find the Yankees eat their fruitcake warmed in the oven and topped with a large slice of sharp cheddar for the mid day meal.

In my house we were never without fruitcake in some form.  In my great grandmother ‘s day ...her name was Massylvia Garner Inman, and she had 9 children...she made a cake everyday!  My mother vaguely remembered her still living in the 1920s and always offering my grandmother cake and sherry as they entered the front hall.  My mother would have been 6 or 7 as the youngest child, and was probably offered lemonade.

My roots are British mostly, and the Anglican Church influenced the making of the Christmas cake or pudding by insisting 12 family members each take a stir in putting together the cake...one stir for each of the Apostles.  The Queen honors that tradition still at nearly 100 years old.

‘Once upon a time’ there was a naughty Southern girl from the United States who broke all the rules of propriety in order to marry a king, who gave up his throne for her.  She was Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson.  He was to have been King Edward the 8th.  He was the uncle of the present queen.  They did not live happily ever after, but they gave a jolly good go at it.  Wallis had a castle-like home and a French chef named Jean Louis who was ordered to learn how to make a white fruit cake like the one her aunt Bessie served when she was a child.  It is now made for public sale in England and other places at 70 dollars a loaf.  It is one of the 9 most sought out fruit cakes in the world.  You can order yours on the internet.

Just every now and then I remember the clip clap of my grandmother Inman’s open toe heels as she went from her sitting room down the back hall, and when the clip clap stopped I knew she had stepped onto the Persian rug and was about to sit down at the little writing desk with its inlaid mother of pearl flowers.  She opened the top and felt around in the little cubbies for The McNeel Family Treasure.....her grandmother’s handwritten recipe for Plum Duff.  ‘Duff’ is the Scottish word for pudding.  

We had plum duff often and it would be my choice for my last meal.  The recipe came over in my great great grandparents’ belongings from Edinborough, Scotland in the late 1700s.   My great great grandfather made furniture and bought one of the first business lots in York when it became a town...Yorkville.  

Confession is good for the soul.  The main reason we are such duff eaters is the hard sauce and real whipped cream served on top of the warm duff. Hard sauce is soft butter, confectioners sugar and sherry (or something harder) stirred together creamily.  The whipped cream may be flavored with vanilla extract, but it is best to leave out the sugar.

I have a cousin named  Steve Langford who spent summers in York.  He loved plum duff.  Even in warm summers Creepy was dishing it up for Steve.  Mama Inman acquired a cuisine catalogue that offered up the familiar British Figgy Pudding featured in BEATRIX POTTER’S Peter Rabbit series.  It came from Crosse and Blackwell’s in a bowl shaped pan.  And, seeing as how Creepy often used the wood stove even in summer, it came as a relief that Steve liked it just fine. 

You can easily find Potter’s story of “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers” or the Roly Poly

Pudding on You Tube.  Precede the story request with The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, for a charming pudding tale!  It is filmed with live actors as Beatrix and others and intermittent BEAUTIFUL animation worthy of Beatrix Potter.

It runs just long enough to sit while you steam your pudding

Recipes next week for White Fruit Cake, WallisWindsor’s White Fruit Cake, Plum Duff and Dark Fruit Cake from the recipes I use myself, and where to order special cakes and exquisite ingredients from over the pond.

With a good fruit cake in the larder, you can have Christmas all year.

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