Those who grew up thinking of fruitcake as either a wonky relative or a colorful brick that smells of molasses should spend a little time with Haifa Habib, whose famous 100-year-old secret recipe takes the cake and makes it mean family.
“Three days before he died my father-in-law passed me the fruitcake recipe. For me alone he wrote it in Arabic that fruitcake recipe and in that moment I knew I was truly a daughter to him,” Mrs. Habib, 84, originally of Lebanon, explained as I stood in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall, old school, French Bakery and Deli in Norfolk, Virginia.
It is a French bakery that has been in Norfolk the past 100 years, run exclusively to old world standards by a family from Lebanon and their sons who were born here in Norfolk.
My husband and I ended up in this bakery because we needed a flat fixed at the tire place next door. I seized on the chance to peek into the bakery. We went in for coffee and a croissant and came out with an education, a fruitcake, a hot pastrami sandwich to die for, and a new extended family.
I have lived here for 10 years and the bakery is one of those places I always meant to explore. However, diets and scheduling have kept me from making the trip until the tire went flat.
Habib and her two sons (one runs the bakery and the other the tiny deli) operate the establishment, which can best be described as a hybrid of a Seinfeld episode and a Food Network special on family run eateries.
There was a line of customers – most of them there to buy the fruitcake – which sells for $35 for a 3-lb and $85 for a 5-lb loaf. I met a couple from New Jersey and another from San Francisco, Calif. who has made the trip to see relatives with part of their missions being fruitcake acquisition.
Apparently, as the framed news clippings on the wall attest, this is no ordinary fruitcake, this is the best fruitcake around, according to both popular and contest standards.
“People come from Boston and all over to buy the fruitcake I make,” Habib said. “Here. You try it. Take one bite and you know I am right.”
While Haifa launched into the story of the 100-year-old oven and the history of the place, one of her sons extolled the virtues of the hot pastrami to my husband as if he were selling Sham-Wows at a carnival, and the other rolled his eyes heavenward for strength as he quietly filled orders.
While so many places crow about being “family owned and operated,” this is one of the few where you can go and actually talk with the family.
I was hesitant to try the cake because my grandmother's fruitcake was so dense and kept for so long that one year my grandpa Frank attacked one with a hacksaw in order to save the poor kitchen knives the humiliation.
“Come on,” Habib coaxed. “This is a family cake we make and I make you part of the family now that you taste it with me.”
I gave in and became not only an an honorary Habib, but also a fruitcake fan in one bite.
Across the room the deli-serving son held a sliver of pastrami aloft and insisted to my husband, “You try it. Take one bite and you will never want anything else! Come on. You know I'm right.”
For a moment I could picture how Habib had gotten her boys to eat new foods, “Just one bite. Come on try it. You know I’m right.”
While I am only related to the Habibs by fruitcake bond, I suddenly felt like I had found my people, a lost part of my tribe.
I flashed back to Christmas at my maternal grandparent’s place in Passaic, NJ with grandma’s four sisters and two brothers, mom’s sister and her two kids, neighbors, extended relatives, and babcia (pronounced bob-chi) great grandma, who wore a babushka, house coat, a pale pink sweater, and handmade woolen slippers.
It was a plethora of Polish women all baking, fussing, guarding their recipes, and knowing best. In the living room the men smoked, swapped stories, and used the kids as carrier pigeons to deliver news from the kitchen about when dinner would be ready and snacks to hold them over until the meal.
Sadly, my husband and I didn’t carry on with that tradition. We moved from Jersey and became an isolated, four boys, mom, and pop operation.
Recently, our boys began asking why our family doesn’t do big crazy holiday gatherings. My husband immediately took time off to make the trip.
However, since all my relatives except for mom are now gone, I had not been very supportive of my husband’s willingness to make the expensive trek.
The fruitcake experience at the French Bakery changed that for me by placing me right in the kind of generational, family unity that I wished I had given my kids.
So, we are hitting the road for two days to New Jersey on a mission to bring Christmas past back to the future for our sons.
With us will go a fruitcake that I am going to make, with some help from Habib, as a symbol of family – for its colorful nature, spice, weight, and restorative properties. Here’s hoping my husband doesn’t need to buy a new hacksaw blade.