Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Holiday Scourge



"There is really only one
fruitcake in the world. People
just keep sending it to one another."

~~Johnny Carson~~

Since this week officially opens the holiday season, it’s time to explore an age-old problem, and what better place to do so than my blog? This is a subject so dark in its aspect, so repulsive, it’s as big a threat to our way of life as Obamacare, thong underwear, or Bill Clinton at a girls choir convention.

Yes, I am talking about fruitcake.
           
Fruitcake was invented about the time man discovered fruit. Satisfied with the texture of his previous diet of rocks and wood chips, early man determined to make fruit more to his liking, so laid it in the sun for several weeks until it attained the same consistency as oak and was festooned with snake skins and bird droppings. This dried fruit was then mixed with things like mud, sticks, bugs, animal innards, and yak hair—and the fruitcake was born.

Secret fruitcake recipes have been handed down through the ages until today only a select few humans still practice this black art. My mother made fruitcakes—usually in the middle of night. That’s when most fruitcake covens conduct this ritual. We could always tell when Mom was preparing for baking night. She’d buy dried fruit, candied fruit, and boxes of raisins. Then she’d sit at the kitchen table and sort through it, dicing up the larger, more recognizable chunks (carving citron into little pineapple-like shapes to fool the unwary), eventually dumping all of it in a gallon jar into which she also poured a bottle of rum. She'd then cap the jar and put it in the dark under the sink for a couple of weeks, at least.

Around October she got the jar out and drained away the rum (a tragic loss if you ask me), the fruit now bloated and uniformly horrible. Then she mixed up a batter which, with the addition of the embalmed fruit, took on the rough consistency of brown concrete that she subsequently globbed into ten or so loaf pans. She always rubbed it around making sure there were no air bubbles in it. To my way of thinking, air bubbles would’ve been a good thing. Something you wouldn’t have to eat, you know? Too bad I didn’t think of that back then. Mom could have cooked me an empty pan.

The cakes baked in a slow oven until they took on the appearance of rectangular cow pies. (I was never stupid enough to suggest to Mom that her fruitcakes looked like crap. Even she—a saint—had her maternal limits.) She dumped the hot cakes out onto the kitchen counter to cool, wrapping each one in cheesecloth, then stored them in brown paper bags on cookie sheets in a cabinet under the kitchen counter. Every few days, for weeks thereafter, she went to the kitchen, pulled the trays out and doused the cheesecloth wrappings with apricot brandy. The kitchen took on the odor of a speakeasy and the rags covering the cakes turned brown. My Christmas wish was always the same—that a marauding band of fruitcake thieves would break in and carry these disgusting wads away. "All right, lady, give up the fruitcake and nobody gets hurt!" Well, so much for Christmas wishes. A week or two before the hoilday, Mom announced the fruitcakes were ready.  “For what?”  was the question on everyone’s mind.

The slicing of the first cake—the one we kept—was a noteworthy event. Mom and Dad gathered the rest of us in the kitchen to watch as Mom reverently peeled the gunky brown cloth off her masterpieces. (The unveiling made me think of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon pulling the wrappings off a mummy.) “They’re beautiful,” my dad sighed. Personally, I thought they looked a whole lot like something the garbage man might scrape off the bottom of the trash dumpster—without the bottle caps, of course. I am still of the opinion they were a waste of perfectly good apricot brandy.

Mom’s fruitcakes were always the same shiny brown on the outside—imagine sticky sea turtles without legs or heads—and lumpy on the inside. Mom shuffled through them, selecting the worst looking one for us to keep for ourselves—kind of like keeping the ugly puppy because you know nobody else wants it. The rest she gifted to friends and relatives.

Thankfully, Mom thought fruitcake was more precious than gold and so she would pare off six very thin slices—one for each of us. She and Daddy wolfed theirs down with coffee, quickly lapsing into some kind of fruitcake-induced coma, whereupon we would slink away, lips curled, and feed our slices to the dogs—all of which would’ve happily eaten hubcaps if we’d offered them up. Except for the citron. Nothing eats citron.

For a few days afterward, Mom would holler, ‘Stay out of the fruitcake!” each time one of us ventured into the kitchen. Eventually she accepted that even if her cakes were the best in the world (and they probably came close), we wouldn’t have touched the stuff if the little lumps in them had been made from solid gold.

Over the years I’ve developed a grudging appreciation for accordion music, polka contests, and annual physical exams. I have never, and will never, however, develop a taste for fruitcake. Come to think of it, I would be svelte today instead of round if someone, somewhere, had invented a fruitcake diet.

Just the other day, I got an email with a link for fruitcake recipes in it, which took me to AllRecipes.Com. All I can say is there are way too many fruitcake recipes out there, people. AllRecipes, itself must have a couple dozen at least, and most of them are prefaced with, “This is the best recipe ever! All our friends and family say this is their favorite fruitcake!” Trust me; they’ve never tasted it! Are they really going to tell you they hate the stuff and never want to see it darken their doors again? No, they aren’t. They’re going to be gracious, knowing you worked hard to produce this inedible, glow-in-the-dark nuclear waste. And every year when the UPS man struggles to Aunt Flo’s front door with a ten-pound package slightly smaller than a shoebox, both he and Aunt Flo know what’s in there, without so much as sniffing the cardboard. Fruitcake. And they both know where it’s going. The TRASH.

A dear friend visited us a few years back, and waxed on at length about how he and his family make fruitcakes every holiday season…wasn’t that wonderful…family bonding experience…and  how they sent them off as gifts. All I could think of as he babbled away was that he should’ve met my mom—and how very, very thankful I am that his kids have a great big dog.