Okay, it's too late for the Christmas ingredient blog challenge. But something happened this season that brought visions of Yuletides Past flooding back to me. A food columnist friend decided to make her first fruitcake this year, and, knowing that I bake, she asked if I had a recipre.
Did I ever.
Once upon a time, before the Christian Church got hold of it, this season was the Feast of Midwinter, a time to gather together in the darkest, coldest time of the year and share food, wine, and camaraderie. Back when I was an impoverished college student, and couldn't afford to buy a lot of stuff, I used to bake a fruitcake for my dad every Christmas.
Even after 40+ years in California, Daddy never got the concept of fresh fruit. The son of Danish immigrants who grew up in the chilly Midwest, his idea of fruit was the dried variety—raisins, dates and prunes. He used to rave about a fruitcake jam-packed with all of the above that his eldest sister, Chris, used to bake for the holidays. My mom, who taught me everything I know about baking, did not do fruitcake, so once when Daddy and I were visiting my Aunt Chris at her retirement home at Leisure World in Seal Beach, I asked for her fruitcake recipe.
I was expecting her to produce some cherished, hand-scrawled Jensen family heirloom, possibly written in Danish. Insted, she handed me an anonymous printed recipe obviously clipped out of some magazine. I don't know what became of the fabled recipe of yore that my dad remembered, but this was the one Chris said she'd been baking for years, so that was good enough for me.
I made it pretty regularly after that, baking it in a round tube pan the day after Thanksgiving, wrapping it in a cotton dishtowel inside a Tupperware container, and liberally dosing it with alcohol (Aunt Chris insisted on Manischewitz Blackberry Wine) no less than once a week until Christmas. Even after I moved away permanently to Santa Cruz, I would divide the recipe into smaller loaves and send one down to my dad in Hermosa Beach. This was not doorstop fruitcake, either; it was rich and gooey and luscious!
Daddy and Aunt Chris are both gone now, but just thinking about fruitcake brings them both back to me. Especially since I recently inherited a tattered photo album that Chris —Anna Augusta Kirstine Jensen—kept as a yong woman in Sioux City, Iowa, in the early 1920s.
That's also her riding a motorcycle in Sioux City, at about age 18 or 19, when she hung out wth the boys—most of them police officers—in the local motorcycle club. Eventually, she married one of them, Tom Brown, and their move to California in the early 1940s launched the clan exodus that resulted in the next generation of Jensens (like my brothers and me) being born here on the Left Coast.
I'll bet your aging relatives have surprising stories too. Why don't you ask them to share some memories at your next holiday gathering? You'll give them an enormous gift of pleasure, and it won't cost you a dime.