Thursday, November 24, 2011

Let ‘Em Eat Fruitcake!

Let ‘Em Eat Fruitcake!
By Cappy Hall Rearick

Rushing towards me like a NFL linebacker, the holidays are coming. This annual emergence of good will makes me hungry for simpler times.

In the old days, as soon as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ended, strings of Christmas lights mysteriously appeared. But for me, each time I gaze through the windows of holidays past I remember my mother preparing for the season long before the first parade float had been decorated.

Mama began to wrap our house in a blanket of autumn from the end of September until after New Year’s. Having grown up during the Great Depression, she was haunted by the things she had longed for as a child: food and shoes. As an adult, they were her two extravagances. Thanksgiving at our house meant not just turkey and dressing, but cakes, pies, cookies and bedroom slippers.

Mama claimed to be allergic to our pecan tree, so she made me gather the nuts for her holiday baking sprees. Not only did I pick up the pecans, I had to pick them out, too.

As soon as the three o’clock school bell rang, I rushed home anticipating the mouth-watering aroma of whatever Mama might be baking. For each batch of cookies she made, she gave me two to eat and then put the rest of them in the freezer until T’day. As though on a mission from God, Mama stored everything but dust bunnies in her new Kenmore chest freezer.

Mama’s fruitcake, full of candied cherries, pineapple and the pecans (that I had gathered) was the queen of her baked goods. Comedians joke about fruitcakes, but that’s because they never tasted my mama’s.

Two to three weeks before Thanksgiving was her fruitcake-baking day because she claimed the flavors needed a few weeks to blend. On that day, the warm fragrance baking in the oven spread throughout the house. Mama punched up the cake with almond flavoring and later a shot of Jack Daniel’s, but a generous helping of her soul was what made that cake special.

Recently I was looking through her old cookbooks and as I leafed through faded recipe pages worn down by many seasons of use, right there in the middle she had jotted down her signature fruitcake recipe. The memory of those Thanksgiving holidays snapped my synapses to attention like a new rubber band.

I stared at my mother’s handwritten recipe. At that point, I had never attempted to bake a fruitcake, but I thought well shoot! I ought to bake one for my grandsons, even if I had to force it down their throats.

I floured and mixed the fruit, nuts and almond flavoring. By the time it was packed tight in the pan, I was grinning all over the place. Before long, the sweet fragrance from so long ago was drifting throughout the house. It was almost like going back to the womb.

Three hours later, I took the cake out of the oven and placed it on a cooling rack, but after thirty minutes my olfactory sensory neurons replaced my normal brain cells. Upside down onto the cake plate it went, at which point I forced myself to allow it rest for five minutes in the pan. Apparently not long enough. When I lifted the pan, the heart of the cake tumbled all over. Candied fruit and nuts decorated my kitchen counter, the floor and eventually the soles of my shoes. What a glorious mess, but what wonderful smells — just like I remembered.

I wanted to pitch a good ol’ southern hissy fit. Instead, I dragged out a pair of old pink bedroom slippers, the heels worn and thin, the terry cloth soft with age. They had been Mama’s shoes, no doubt a past Christmas gift. I didn’t have the heart to throw them away after she died.

I slid my feet inside them and flip-flopped back to the catastrophe awaiting me in the kitchen while asking myself what my creative mother might have done with those fruitcake globs.

Also known as the Queen of Cliché, she would have said: “When life deals you crumbs, make crumb cake.”

Smiling at the thought, I grabbed a handful of the sticky mess, rolled it into balls, and then called my grandsons in from where they were digging a direct tunnel to Toy’s R Us in my front yard.

“Hey you guys,” I yelled. “Want some Gummy Bear Balls?”

They stopped digging and stared, probably wondering how much cooking wine I had gulped.

“Catch,” I yelled.

They gobbled them up as fast as I could pitch them. And when I asked how they liked my Gummy Bear Balls, they said, with sticky fruits stuck to their teeth, “Got milk?”

Mama would have liked that answer.