Friday, December 26, 2014

The Fruitcake Chronicles: A Work of Amateur Yuletide Fiction

Note: Once a year, it seems, I become possessed with the inexplicable desire to tell a story as somebody else. Please bear with the footnotes, as they are my "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" that lets you know I'm still here.

Lucy stood in line at the bakery on Main Street, appalled at the scene before her. The shop’s owner, who never had struck Lucy as passably friendly, was now glaring at an gnarled and bent old woman who was ordering a pineapple Danish.
“I can’t hear you,” the bakery owner snapped angrily at the old woman, who swayed uncertainly in front of the pastry case. Lucy [1] gave the woman behind the counter a small smile, as if to say, ‘Take your time and help the old lady,” but was met with a stony look,

Lucy almost walked angrily, but was ravenous after her morning workout at the gym and needed a cookie to make the drive home – so much for will power. She waited through the rest of the old lady’s transaction, alternating between wanting to leave the shop and being distracted by shelves full of festively wrapped cookie baskets for the holidays. When it was finally her turn, she asked for a dozen fig cucidati, the traditional Italian cookies that the bakery only sold at Christmastime.

“I wait for these all year,” Lucy said to the woman behind the counter with a smile, receiving a half-glimmer of acknowledgement in return, nothing more. 

Freshly ground nutmeg, scraped with a doll-sized grater
achieves a spicy warmth.
Lucy wolfed one of the cookies down as she drove home to get ready for work. She thought about her upcoming birthday party, and realized that she had not yet made a reservation for the Imperial Panda Dim Sum Parlor. Although she had long resisted using Gather,[2] Lucy figured initially that it would be a good way to get a head count for the restaurant. She also began to mentally compile her shopping list for Project Fruitcake.

Like most people, Lucy didn’t really like fruitcake as much as the idea of it. Despite its colorful appearance and ancient lineage as a Yuletide tradition, it was too much for modern palates. Too old-fashioned, too sentimental, and it took too long to prepare - kind of like Christmas itself.

Lucy’s memory of a dark, rum-laden cake that she had tried long ago, along with endless viewings of contestants wrapping cakes in sheets of marzipan on “The Great British Bake Off,” impelled her to take on a fanciful project. A few weeks earlier, she searched online for a version of fruitcake that sounded tasty, with accessible ingredients and relatively simple preparation, settling on a recipe for bolo pretu  - a Caribbean black fruitcake, flavored with port wine, rum, and an exotic sweetener that gave it a rich dark color.

Right before Thanksgiving, Lucy began to macerate dried fruits for the fruitcake in two large glass jars. She eyed the jars almost daily and flipped them over periodically to redistribute the rum and port wine that had settled at the bottom of the jars. Occasionally, she would open one of the containers and sniff expectantly at the contents, expecting to be bowled over by a potent alcoholic brew. However, the subtle aroma did not exactly surround her in the aura of a nostalgic and Christmasy potion.

Candied orange peel from a kosher market gave the
fruitcake an interfaith appeal. It also makes a
decadent baker's nosh, with handfuls of 73 percent
cacao chocolate chips.
One of Lucy’s most favorite holiday tales – along with “The Shop Around the Corner,” “The Gift of the Magi,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” was Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” She particularly enjoyed the parts where Buddy and his elderly cousin gathered the ingredients for their cakes, a labor of love that took hours of toil and their limited resources. 

While Lucy didn’t have anything quite as colorful to look forward to as procuring whiskey from an irascible old Indian or harvesting and shelling her own pecans, she did brave the pre-holiday crowds on the road and in the stores, already frantic weeks before Thanksgiving. Most of the fruit was easy enough to get – dried cherries, figs, prunes, currants, and raw almonds from Trader Joe’s. The orange peel, however, posed a challenge. 

The recipe had warned against using the sickly sweet orange peel that is ordinarily found in supermarkets each year alongside noxiously colored tubs of cherries and citron sold to make garden variety fruitcake. After culling every gourmet market on the Westside, Lucy remembered a treasure trove of dried fruits, nuts, and candies at Glatt Mart[3]. Not wanting to get her hopes up, she drove over and found plastic tubs of lightly crystallized orange peel, amid the packages of halvah and kosher gummy bears. Ironically, it was the fragrant citrus peel that made her boozy fruit concoction smell officially like actual fruitcake. 

The other ingredient that took some effort to come by was the burnt sugar, which is found in Caribbean markets. A self-professed Luddite, Lucy had to admit that the Internet came in handy when searching out exotic foods, as it yielded the discovery of Dat Moi Market in Gardena. The store was a surprising array of not only Caribbean delicacies like Irish Moss drinks and plantain chips, but also of pan-Asian and European produce and groceries, as well as Hispanic delicacies that are now considered as nearly native to Los Angeles. Often, the ingredients crossed over the boundaries of ethnic cuisines, a fact that fascinated Lucy. It was indeed, a small world, after all, she thought, as she munched on a golden-hued Jamaican beef patty, warm from the case on the checkout counter. 

Steeping fruit in rum and port, Expected the Ghost
of Christmas Past to float out of the jar, but
had to settle for a faintly boozy aroma,
reminiscent of the last office party.
The pie’s origin was the Cornish pasty, which was introduced to the Caribbean through British colonialism. Turmeric, originally grown in Southeast Asia, gave the turnovers a subtle bit of swagger and flavor, while the spicy meat filling, which reminded Lucy of the XLNT tamales that she used to buy at 7-11 as a kid, was a satisfying complement to the flaky pastry shell.

The Dat Moi staff who were predominantly Asian, took turns at eating their lunch out of Chinese bowls on a card table set up inside the back of a large delivery truck in the parking lot. A makeshift Buddhist shrine, complete with incense sticks and a plate of mandarins, was hung on the fence nearby. The most astonishing thing at the market, however, was how friendly everyone was, from the customers buying okra and Yan Yan cookies, to the butchers and produce men who occasionally interrupted their trip to the outdoor stockroom to smilingly wave patrons safely into their parking spaces. 

During the couple of weeks that Lucy’s fruit mixture was steeping – first on her kitchen table, then in the hall closet, which she later determined provided a cooler and darker environment – she still had to go to work, to yoga class, to babysit her nephews, and to contemplate yet another holiday season without a boyfriend. It was all well and good, going about shopping, baking, and doing other pleasant chores unfettered by an attention –seeking mate.  But despite the distracting build-up to the holidays, it was at the parties and family gatherings that Lucy felt her solitude most keenly. Her friends often suggested that she try to meet men online, but she told them it really wasn’t her way.

“You just go out with a bunch of different guys,” her friend Martin reassured her. “See what you like.”

“Somehow, I’ve only met losers online,” Lucy blurted out, forgetting for a moment that Martin dated girls that he regularly met online. “I mean, they’re nothing like you at all. One guy started doing impressions of Rich Little doing impressions. Seriously.

Burnt sugar essence is used in Trinbagonian
dishessuch as Pelau and Brown Chicken Stew,
cocktails, and of course, Caribbean
black fruitcake.
“I’d rather meet a guy in person,” Lucy went on. “You can tell more about them with body language and the way they talk. Besides, I am constantly rating their grammar online. It’s a real thing with me. Nothing turns me off like an incorrectly used apostrophe, or when someone says, ‘expresso’ and really doesn’t know any better.”

Another thing that really got Lucy was how everyone at work pretended that “Christmas” wasn’t really happening. The euphemism, “holiday” seemed inadequate to describe the frenzy of shopping, partying, and eating. Christmas, as it is now celebrated in the United States, could no longer be thought of as a religious holiday for the most part, unless one  considered the fervent worship of materialism and bargain hunting. Most of the people that Lucy knew, who had grown up with a variety of religious or atheistic beliefs, went to holiday parties, gave and received presents, and once in a while, even decorated an evergreen tree. Denying the existence of Christmas at its most basic contemporary form was in Lucy’s mind, political correctness gone wrong, and she resolved to thumb her nose at it.
One afternoon, Lucy sauntered into the break room at work to make a cup of green tea. She saw a woman who worked in Martin’s office, whose name she could not remember, which made the encounter all the more awkward. 

“Are you going to the ‘holiday’ party tomorrow?” Lucy asked her brightly. Old habits die hard.

“No,” replied the woman. “I don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“Oh,” said Lucy, unsure of what to say next. She wished her co-worker a good afternoon, and scolded herself for not finding a tactful way to ask why the woman did not celebrate Christmas. Would it have been such a crime to ask? Would it really have been considered intrusive, or would it have opened up an honest dialogue about true diversity of beliefs, and harmony that can exist when people decide to accept and/or honor the ways of others?

Panforte, a fruit and nut confection from Siena, was the Kind Bar
of the Crusades.They could have won more converts
to Christianity by serving this at Mass, and skipping
the Inquisition.
As Lucy became more fruitcake-obsessed, she learned that the idea of using preserved fruits to make a cake or even to provide actual sustenance, was a fairly ancient and universal idea. She and Martin sampled a panforte [4]that she had picked up from World Market, a tiny cake of pressed almonds, candied fruit, honey, and spices. They argued over whether the tiny packet of white powder that accompanied it was a desiccant to protect the Tuscan confection during the import process, or powdered sugar to enhance the sweet. The packet turned out to contain powdered sugar, the fact of which Lucy and Martin were only satisfied with after sheepishly verifying it on the Internet[5]

Finally, the day came that Lucy had set aside to bake her fruitcakes. She went to an early yoga class that morning, and showered at the studio. Hurriedly, she drove across the parking lot to grab a smoothie at Jamba Juice. As she tripped over her wool-lined chukkas while climbing hurriedly out of her car, she noticed a man getting into his truck next to her parking space. He had stopped and was smiling oddly at her. 

Lucy’s first inclination was that she had parked too close to his truck and that he could not get in. But she had somehow frozen to her spot and was unable to speak. He was tanned and a bit creased, but in a good way, like Jimmy Stewart in “How the West Was Won.” But what was most disarming was the direct way in which he looked at her.

“Good morning,” he said, grinning broadly.

“Er, hi,” stammered Lucy, all too aware of her still-wet hair and flushed face. She finally got her legs to move and walked into Jamba Juice and ordered a Mango a Go Go, resisting the temptation to look back at their cars and see if he had left. He had. 

Adding fruity Elfin Magic (not a euphemism)
to the black cake batter.
Lucy mentally went through all the reasons why it had been a good decision not to pursue even a tiny conversation with him: a) his ruddy glow was a result of having enjoyed a Bloody Mary-filled brunch at the sports bar next door; b) he thought she was someone else; or c) he was on his way to do the shopping and pick up lattes at Starbucks for two. She had to concede that none of these were good reasons. “A” and “b” were stupid reasons not to have spoken, and even if “c” had been correct, at least she would have taken a chance. It was like that song by the Waitresses about running into a guy all year and not getting a date, but without the happy ending at the A&P. 

Lucy shrugged it off and went home. There is communion to be found in an activity like baking, even if it is a bit one-sided. She thought of Capote’s story and the people that she was going to gift with the product of her labors. In the story, after spending hours on their fruitcakes, the old woman and the boy gave them to the most random of acquaintances, from a missionary that had passed through their rural town to the President of the United States. 

While Lucy’s list was not exactly random, she knew that not everyone on her list would be able to have a fruitcake. So she factored in those individuals who would probably be most appreciative, namely those with whom she had shared her goal to debunk the myth of doorstop-like fruitcakes of Christmases Past. Friends who were similarly food-obsessed, a few coworkers, and her family, who, at the very least would be amused by her efforts, made the list. She also remembered that her history professor at El Mapache Grande Community College had mentioned that he spent his childhood in the West Indies where his parents had been born. 

Batter up: Paper baking pans make the black fruitcake
easy to portion and dresses it up as well.
Her favorite story among the many that Professor Smith told in his class was about when he attended kindergarten in a tiny Antiguan village. His headmaster – who also happened to be an uncle – had one day, punished his Brooklyn-born nephew with a caning for mouthing off during a lesson. When the village mayor and the headmaster strolled the village that evening to bid the inhabitants good night as was the local custom, the rebellious Smith refused to greet them and climbed up a tree to hide. His older brother came out into the yard and told him that he had better shape up or he wouldn’t live to make it back to the U.S., and he begrudgingly climbed down. Lucy never forgot the story, and decided to reserve one of her rum-soaked cakes for Professor Smith[6].

The process of making the actual cakes was deceptively simple, but time-consuming. One of the benefits of using a recipe that was found online was the ability to see how other bakers had fared with it. Lucy took their advice with a grain of salt and the realization that the website’s comments were of course, edited. But she was encouraged by their unanimous success and the compliments they all received.  

Brush with genius:Anointing the baked black cakes
with rum for aging. The fruitcakes, not me.
The batter was easy to make, and Lucy held her breath when she added the recipe’s secret mojo: the burnt sugar that was meant to give the fruitcakes an almost chocolaty complexity. It did indeed turn the mixture of butter, sugar, and spices a stylish black-brown shade. She folded in the jars of macerated fruit and scooped the whole thing into two dozen paper baking pans. 

While no stranger to baking cakes, Lucy was intimidated by the lengthy two-hour bake time at a very low temperature. She resisted the urge to keep peeking in on them, and kept busy cleaning up the kitchen, watching the BBC’s “War and Peace,” [7]and preparing each of the four six-pan batches so that they could go into the oven in quick succession.

Finally, Lucy had 24 loaves of honest-to-God Caribbean black fruitcake scenting her kitchen. She anointed each cake with two tablespoons of dark rum, and wrapped them in Ziploc bags. As she doled them out during the last days before Christmas, she topped each fruitcake with a sheet of rolled marzipan and tiny sugar snowflake sprinkles and pearls. 

The cakes were heavy, almost over half a pound each, maybe more. As the recipe had promised, the spices and fruit were balanced by the burnt sugar syrup, which gave the fruitcakes a chocolaty overtone. Lucy took one to sample at the office. Anyone under the age of 30 seemed baffled but appreciative, and those who were old enough to remember what fruitcake was, applauded her efforts. Some of them actually even admitted to liking fruitcake in general, but were really impressed by the unusual recipe.

The Marzipan of Colonialism: Not a Monty Python
sketch, but what can happen when we agree to
disagree, and come up with new recipes to
Even as plum puddings now come in microwaveable containers, fruitcake is still an old-fashioned idea. Apart from the obvious historical tendency for people to preserve fruit in sugar and make it into desserts like fruitcake, perhaps there was something more to the recipe, today in the 21st Century. Maybe today, the idea of creating and sharing something like fruitcake – which in austere, pre-Dean & Deluca times, was probably considered an extravagance -  is a nod to a simpler era, when there was time to steep the harvest in spirits, shell nuts by hand, and bake cakes instead of ordering them on Amazon.

Lucy visited her old stomping grounds at El Mapache Grande on the last day of school for the term. She found Professor Smith’s office, and upon asking if he was in, was told by the receptionist that he had stepped out for a moment. As Lucy was about to step outside to wait, Professor Smith came through the door.

“You may not remember me,” she began. “But I really enjoyed your class on ‘American History and Thought.’”

Professor Smith began to form a smile of recognition. Lucy said shyly, “I made this… Caribbean black fruitcake… and thought you would enjoy it.”

Lucy stood there wondering if she had pronounced “bolo pretu” correctly.

“Thank you,” said the professor. “This was so thoughtful.”

But Professor Smith's words belied the emotions that were playing out on his face. He was silent for a few seconds, but Lucy saw in his expression a look of wonder, of remembering, and of great surprise. It is what we all look for in the days before December 25. It can, at times, be felt in the hustle and bustle, in happy secrets vainly kept, and in moments of true discovery that can occur while performing these festive chores for what seems the umpteenth time. 

These are the moments that make us pause and see the possibility of creating a true spirit of goodwill, love, and reverence for those around us. We are prone to actively seeking this vision during what we are told is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. We tend to miss these moments as they happen throughout the rest of the year. They are most evident when we can maintain our belief in humankind's potential for goodness, and let those near us know that we recognize it in them.

When he had recovered himself, the old professor recalled what a diligent student Lucy had been, and asked about what she was doing now. The telephone rang and the voice of the receptionist broke their reverie. Lucy began to take her leave, and ventured, “I hope the cake is good.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Professor Smith. “Anything you touch turns to gold.”

And for that brief moment in time, Lucy believed [8]him.

[1] Lucy was the name of my maternal grandmother. Also, my birthday, December 13, is the feast of Santa Lucia, observed in Sweden as part of the pre-Christmas celebration. The oldest daughter of the household greets each family member bearing a tray of coffee and saffron buns, while wearing an evergreen wreath of candles upon her head. We did a lot of wacky things when I was growing up, but that, unfortunately, was not one of them. It’s never too late though.

[2] My fake name for a popular website that is meant to faciliatate the process of inviting people to a gathering. In reality, the site becomes another narcissistic form of social torture, wherein the host or hostess not only learns who plans to attend, but also can see how many times their intended guests have viewed the invitation while waiting for something better to come up before they RSVP “yes” or “no.”

[3] A fabulous kosher market on Pico Boulevard, where the truly global nature of Jewish cuisine can be explored.

[4] Usually made with a thin layer of what tastes like the communion wafer given during a Catholic mass, panforte, or “strong bread,” dates back to the Crusades when as now, an army marched on its stomach. Also reminiscent of a Kind Bar or any of those raw fruit snacks that are sold as a healthy option to a candy bar. Nice with a cup of coffee or even better, a glass of wine and a bit of cheese.

[5] “Lucy” thinks that people are becoming less intelligent because they are losing a) intellectual curiosity and b) depend on the Internet, not real life, to learn about, well, real life. Looking up recipes online or writing a food blog doesn’t count

[6] This is a mostly true story. “Professor Smith” grew up to become a teacher himself, and although he spared the rod, he meted out discipline with a mixture of tough love and common sense to his students.

[7] I am reading “War and Peace,” because that is what bored single people do – show off by reading the classics that they missed in school, or were too young and callow to understand the first time. YouTube serves as my Cliff Notes for this enterprise, and I have to admit it helped in keeping the major characters organized in my mind. The sight of a young Anthony Hopkins playing the part of Pierre Bezukhov, with hair and an extra 20 pounds (the series was made in the 1970s) hasn’t hurt either.

[8] Happily, this, the best part of the whole story, was true. All the work I put into the fruitcakes was worth it for what became my “Hallmark moment” of the season.

If you’ve been patient (or curious) enough to stick with this attempt at storytelling to get to the end, I wish you all the joy of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever festival you are celebrating this month. For that matter, I hope that the past year has given you lots of reason to celebrate, and that 2015 will yield even more reasons to come.

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