Over My Shoulder: Traditions are meant to be cherished

by Ann Robson

Christmas fruitcakes get a bad rap.

Johnny Carson once said there is only one fruitcake that people send around the world to each other. Other less kind comments include using it for a doorstop. There seems to be a general lack of appreciation for this Christmas custom.

Making a fruitcake for the holiday season has been part of my family’s ritual for as long as I can remember. My mother made her fruitcake in three pans ranging from small to medium to large. Her mother made the same cake in the same pans. Now I have the recipe, the pans and the duty to continue tradition.

Several years ago my mother handed me her recipe and watched over me as I made the fruitcake. She was recovering from foot surgery and staying with us. It seemed the logical year to hand off the custom.

I dutifully took the recipe, made a grocery list and prepared to follow in her footsteps. She watched me closely. My first error was not having a wooden spoon with which to mix all the ingredients. My second error was not lining the pans carefully with aluminum foil. (Since my husband worked in the aluminum industry that seemed unforgivable.) I did use the foil, just not the way she had done it.

I did not make a third error as I proceeded in silence to put the ingredients together. I went about following her recipe. As I used my “modern” tools of an electric mixer to beat the eggs and to combine wet and dry ingredients I realized how much harder it must have been for her to do all that is required. Nuts have to be chopped so I used a food processor to do that, while she would have had to chop them by hand. The eggs had to be separated. I used a gadget that does that for me; she had to carefully do it by hand. It took me some time combining the dry ingredients with the wet ones with my mixer. The batter is quite stiff and there is a lot of it; she would have done it by hand with her wooden spoon.

The major difference was probably the baking time. I tested mine at one hour then two hours and they were done. Hers used to take several hours in an unreliable woodstove oven. 

One major omission on my part was the family ritual of each member of the family stirring the cake at some point. Allegedly that brought luck to us all. Have I mentioned that I come from a long line of Irish who have more superstitions than I can count?

The finished product is delicious. It contains several kinds of fruit, beautiful dark base with butter and eggs and lots of good stuff we shouldn’t be eating. I added a touch to my mother’s recipe by pouring some rum over the top of each cake while it was still warm, thus allowing it to permeate the cakes and help keep them moist. I did get a raised eyebrow look when I did this but, eventually a comment that doing that was a good idea.

When I make the annual fruitcake I sense my mother’s presence watching to see that it is done right. That’s a tradition I cherish.

Warm wishes to all for a Christmas rich in traditions, new or old.

Ann Robson is the author of “Over My Shoulder: Tales of Life and Death and Everything In Between.” She may be reached at overmyshoulder@charter.net .