Fruitcakes: As memorable as a story by Capote
December 22, 2001, 04:00 AM
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Every year, right after the Fourth of July, my grandmother began to put together her Christmas fruitcakes.

She made one for each of her three children and one more for herself. We kids didn't get one, though. Fruitcakes soaked in brandy for six months are not the thing for kids.

And few kids are into dried fruits and pecans stuffed into a thick batter.

Recently, I decided to continue my grandmother's practice of mailing fruitcakes out to family and close friends.

I took up the fruitcake tradition even though I suspect fruitcakes, with their historical ties to dear old England, are no longer politically correct.

Right off the bat, I learned what my grandmother surely knew early on. Fruitcakes get a bad rap. Once anyone has eaten one of those gummy, tasteless concoctions sold in the supermarkets, any future fruitcake is looked upon with trepidation.

Even the designer fruitcakes offered on the Internet are full of preservatives and melon rinds colored to look like plums or cherries.

But a real fruitcake is a thing of beauty. Studded with real fruits, fresh California nuts, and complex spices, a fruitcake can be the star of the Christmas show.

And long after the Christmas memories have faded, a fruitcake taken on a long road or camping trip will beats the pants off a power bar.

Fruitcake has a virtually unlimited shelf life. Wrap a fruitcake in cheesecloth doused with the liquor of your choice and it will be good to go months from now.

While most fruitcakes are stored in a Tupperware container, in some parts of the country they are kept in the sideboard with a glass of whiskey in the center hole.

Fruitcakes have been served at weddings and Christmas since the early 1800s. The ratio of fruit to batter has always been an issue for fruitcake bakers. At least half the weight of the cake should be fruit. Cakes with smaller amounts of fruit are called Plum Cakes or Dundee Cakes.

But when fruitcake first appeared in the late 1800s, the ratio was often higher than 50-50.

In one of the first recorded recipes, recorded by one Eliza Smith in 1753, 4 pounds of flour were mixed with 4 pounds of butter, spice, 20 egg yolks, 5 pints of cream, 6 pounds of currants, candied lemon and orange peel. Only 1.5 pounds of sugar were used in Eliza Smith's "Great Cake"

As if getting the proper balance of all those ingredients wasn't enough of a challenge for the 18th century home baker, getting around the kitchen was a major undertaking.

All the fruitcake ingredients were carefully prepared. The fruit was hand washed, dried and stoned, if necessary. The butter was also washed and rinsed in rosewater. Sugar had to be pounded and sieved.

Eggs were beaten for at least a half an hour, as was the custom of the day.

Yeast or "barm" from fermenting beer had to be coaxed to life.

Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired ovens of the era.

Needless to say, things are easier for the 21st century cook. An outstanding fruitcake can be put together in less than an hour. And it will be remembered long after the last crumbs have disappeared.

To add to your baking pleasure, read "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote while the aroma of your fruitcake fills your house.

Capote, who grew up in rural Alabama during the Great Depression, recalls baking fruitcakes with his cousin, Miss Sook Faulk.

Capote and Sook baked the cakes and delivered them via baby carriage to their nearly destitute neighbors.

One year, Capote and Sook baked a fruitcake for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"A Christmas Memory" begins"In fruitcake weather." The story of the friendship between two odd souls — one young and one old — is a Christmas classic.

Another great book is "Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook" by Capote's aunt, Marie Rudisill.

The book provides insights into Capote's life growing up in the rural South where he was reared by distant relatives until he was 10.

Even better than the biographical details of one of America's great writers is the 22 outstanding fruitcake recipes for all occasions. Each is great but there is something distinctly Southern about the Robert E. Lee Fruitcake and the Pecan Fruitcake.

Rudisill reminds readers she and Capote gathered pecans by climbing the giant trees and shook the branches until the nuts fell to people waiting below.

The book is a year-round tribute to fruitcake or, as Rudisill calls it, the"Queen of Cakes." 

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.