Of Fruitcake and Family

The fruitcake is all gone, and I ate most of it myself.

I hadn’t *really* meant to horde it, despite my cheeky threats to do exactly that. No, I planned to share it with the kids and Paul, to slice it off and offer it to friends dropping by over the holidays.

Except that we haven’t had any guests, and the kids have been more interested in the various chocolate confections we’ve been baking for the last couple of weeks.

And besides, I love the fruitcake. Notice the article there: the fruitcake. Not simply “fruitcake.” To be more specific, I love this fruitcake. Inge’s fruitcake. The Fruitcake. The only fruitcake there should ever be.

Inge is my mother-in-law and one of the very best cooks I know. That’s not even an accurate description. She’s more than a cook. She has impressive technical facility in the kitchen, but she also has imagination and a sense of both culinary elegance and adventure.  She has prepared some of the most memorable meals of my life–both simple and complex: jellyfish salad,  homemade hot & sour soup, Provencal stew of chicken and prunes, Christmas goose, fresh papaya sprinkled with lime for breakfast, and mandelsplitter–clusters of toasted almond slivers coated with dark chocolate that she spikes with cayenne for dessert.

Inge’s fruitcake, though, beats all. I, like most everyone I know, had always approached this iconic holiday “treat” with a mixture of mocking and revulsion. For me, the inclusion of maraschino cherries and candied citron were enough to keep me far, far away from it, never mind that it was home made or purchased from some gourmet market. (Maraschino cherries just scare me. The color, the texture, the taste. An abomination.) But when, during a Christmas visit to  their home outside San Diego, she unwrapped the heavy loaf from the foil it had been curing in, and the whole, blanched almonds, walnuts, prunes, apricots and golden raisins glistened forth like California sunshine–yes, I’m going for ridiculous melodrama here–I was a convert.

Now, I wait every year for the arrival of the fruitcake. My holiday can’t start without it. And when it comes, I tell myself that I will not eat the whole thing before Christmas and by myself. I have, as I’ve noted, varying degrees of success.

This year, as if the fruitcake weren’t enough of a gift, Inge included an envelope containing the letters she and my grandmother wrote back and forth since Paul and I married, almost seven years ago. They never met each other–my grandparents lived in Florida and were too ill to travel–but knowing how hugely important they were to me, my in-laws must have sent them a Christmas card that first year. They couldn’t have known that my grandmother was a letter-writer, but what began as a simple gesture of etiquette and politesse grew into a real fondness, a friendship in correspondence.

I have a box of my grandmother’s letters already safely put away, and I’ll add these to that collection. I’ll be honest: I have not been able to read through them since her death last year. That grief is still very raw and close to the surface for me. Someday I will, though, and I know that they will be as delightful, sweet and, to use one of Inge’s words, nourishing, as my favorite holiday snack/treat/dessert/breakfast…

Oh, there’s just nothing Inge’s fruitcake can’t do. Peace on Earth and good food for all!

I promise to share next year. Maybe.


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