Belatedly, my mother and I are now getting around to making fruitcake. Fortunately, our family and friends will gladly eat it in the new year rather than at Christmas. As true fruitcake bakers and eaters know, fruitcake is most properly prepared around Thanksgiving. Ideally, it should have a few weeks to season before it is consumed.
Fruitcake is often the subject of jokes, and I myself have been known to sing “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” at this time of year. Nevertheless, in our family fruitcake baking is an almost sacred ritual that connects me to my mother Jan and her mother Clara. It’s as much about that chain of bakers as about the end product.
I’m sure I’m not the first home baker to fall in love with Truman Capote’s touching story from 1956, “A Christmas Memory.” First published in Mademoiselle magazine, of all places, this reminiscence sketches for readers the loving relationship in the 1930s between Capote as a child and his cousin, Sook Faulk. On the inside this sixty-odd-year-old woman was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”
The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who are nameless in the tale and who seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst. The highlight of the year for young “Buddy” and his friend is the time in November when the two break into their piggy banks, shop for ingredients, and bake 30 fruitcakes. The fruitcakes make their way out into the larger world, presented to people who seem interesting or significant to the bakers, from President Roosevelt to an itinerant knife grinder.
The story is brilliantly written in the present tense, giving the reader an immediate sense of being a part of the two protagonists’ world and their baking ritual. Capote repeats several times the phrase with which his cousin announces each year that the time to begin baking has come: “It’s fruitcake weather!”
“It’s always the same,” he explains.“[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces: ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”
I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to other people and our recollections of those people. The Truman Capote who is narrating is two decades and more than a thousand miles from his cousin’s memory; toward the end of the story he explains that not long after the Christmas he recalls in minute detail he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.
Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures—their marshalling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies the whiskey that preserves the cakes–he brings both his younger self and his beloved cousin back to life.
The story makes every reader pine for the wonder of childhood. I’ve participated in a fair number of local theatrical productions. The only time I ever had to wear waterproof mascara was when I played the part of the older cousin in staged readings of “A Christmas Memory.” I couldn’t make it to the story’s end without crying. I still can’t.
So let’s all bake fruitcake—for Truman Capote before he “became” Truman Capote, for lost cousins everywhere, for our mothers and our grandmothers.
Capote writes in the story that he and his cousin kept scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they received from the scattered recipients of their cakes, notes that gave them a feeling of connection “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”
Cooking gives me that feeling of connection every day, but particularly when it’s fruitcake weather.
Jan’s Killer Fruitcake
1 pound fruitcake fruits (I particularly like the not too sticky ones from King Arthur Flour)
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup raisins, cut in half
1 cup currants
1/2 cup orange juice or sweet cider
1/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons brandy, plus brandy for seasoning
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon mace
1-1/2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine the fruit, nuts, juice, molasses, 2 tablespoons brandy, and spices in a large bowl. Mix them together well, and let them stand while preparing the batter. (If you leave them for several hours or overnight, so much the better; you may use them almost immediately, however.)
Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. In a separate large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, and beat them until they are fluffy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Stir in the flour mixture, and then fold in the fruit mixture.
Line 2 greased loaf pans with well greased parchment paper, and divide the batter between them. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This may take up to about 1-3/4 hours, but start testing at the end of 1 hour just to be sure.
Let the cakes cool completely in their pans. Remove them carefully. Wrap them in cheesecloth, and drizzle brandy over the cheesecloth. Cover the wrapped cakes in foil, and seal them in plastic bags. Stow them away to season as long as you can. Optimally, you should wait at least 3 weeks before serving them, but you may certainly try them as soon as 10 days after baking. If you want to keep them for more than 3 weeks, you may have to drizzle on more brandy from time to time.
Makes 2 loaves.
A few years ago NPR’s This American Life aired a vintage reading of “A Christmas Memory” by Capote himself. To hear it and more, visit http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Archive.aspx?year=2003, and look for the December 19 edition of the program.
And to hear me make fruitcake and sing a few strains of “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake,” try