True confessions of a fruitcake convert
PITMAN, N.J. — I used to be one of those people - the kind of person who repeatedly dusted off old jokes from that guy who preceded Jay Leno on the "Tonight Show," chortling and pointing at stacks of fruitcake tins in the grocery store, ridiculing anyone who would actually admit to ingesting one.
Two years ago, I would have applauded the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority's recent ban on fruitcake in the interest of safety - fruitcakes are so dense they could hide not just a knife, but Osama bin Laden himself. I would have quipped that humanity had long known about other fruitcake-related risks such as chipped teeth, broken toes, and severed friendships.
But all that has changed. I have eaten my words.
Two years ago, my wife announced one December morning that she wanted to make that cumbrous Christmas classic. Ignoring my litany of one-liners (one doesn't make fruitcake, darling, one mines it), she told me that every year her grandmother, an English immigrant, made traditional Victorian Christmas "goodies" that included plum pudding, figgy pudding, mincemeat pies, and fruitcake.
She confessed having fruitcake in the house every yuletide and actually enjoying it. My wife described the cake her grandmother made in terms I had never fully associated with the dessert before: spicy, sweet, nutty, and fruity. Alas, her grandmother, who measured ingredients by the palm of her hand and the arc of the pour, never wrote down any recipes. And ever since her grandmother's passing, my wife had been feeling a holiday culinary void. Thus began her quest for the perfect recipe.
She researched and gathered recipes from books, magazines, websites, and newspapers. Then came the experiments. With the somber seriousness of biochemist, she tested this recipe and that recipe, taking ingredients from some and adding to others.
As she performed her empirical lab work, I reviewed some of her findings. Roman soldiers apparently carried cakes made of raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds mixed in a barley mash (tasty). Some food scholars dated fruitcake all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who considered it essential sustenance for the dead in the next life (hardly surprising).
"Hey, honey," I called from the dining room, "now I know how the pyramids have lasted thousands of years." A green candied maraschino projectile sailed from the kitchen in response.
But one night a few weeks later, while I was engrossed in the evening news, my wife entered the living room and handed me a round, deep brown cake. The top had a glossy sheen and was decorated with colorful bubbles of candied red and green cherries. It was weighty.
She handed me a knife and tentatively, I cut a slice. The knife passed through without effort. I took a bite. And then another. Before I knew it, I was helping myself to another piece. Some may say that it was the systematic deadening of my taste buds from unremitting subjections to one failed experiment after another, while others may argue it was simply fatigue, but the fruitcake tasted good. In fact, it was delicious. It was moist and chewy and laden with spice that lifted the corners of my mouth into an unavoidable smile. She had done it.
Ever since, I have been an advocate, eagerly explaining to unbelievers that fruitcakes are sort of like people: Some are dry and dense while others are packed with fruit and spice. And some just need a little extra holiday care to help them turn out just right.
• Dean P. Johnson is a writer and high school language-arts teacher.