by Ray Linville | Photography by Carol Wilson
At this time of the year, I’m looking for fruitcake. You know the kind: chock-full of sweet fruits, nuts and other goodies. The candied-fruit colors of red, yellow and green contrast brightly with the other ingredients and the dark-brown cake, and the sweet taste reminds me of a homemade fruitcake when I was growing up.
My fruitcake search usually leads to a grocery store, where I can find the seasonal products prominently displayed. As I pick up a circular tin or a rectangular box, I check its ingredients, and they all look familiar (except for the preservatives and other chemicals that have been added). What I really want is fruitcake that is homemade, even though I realize how much effort it takes.
I grew up in a family that never bought desserts. All our desserts were homemade—and nothing “store-bought” could compare. If we did eat a dessert that had not been made in our home, we were at a potluck supper or family reunion, and it would have still qualified as “homemade.”
Not buying desserts is a sign of how little money my frugal parents spent. Buying a fruitcake would never have been considered. It would have been the most extravagant way to show off, and we would never have taken fruitcake from a store to a potluck (unlike today when fried chicken from every fast-food store is too common). As a result, when I pick up a fruitcake in a store, I put it back on the shelf relatively quickly and leave the display area without having a second thought.
Although I still remember how little money my family spent when I was a kid, I was taken aback while searching for the fruitcake recipe in a family cookbook. I found it in a handwritten notebook that dates to the 1930s. The title is “Poor Man’s Fruitcake” —yep, that would have been the perfect name for what my family made.
The recipe isn’t fancy; it lacks today’s gourmet ingredients. The only fruit is sweetened applesauce and raisins. It does include a cup of nuts but doesn’t specify what kind. The recipe was limited by what could be found in the yard. Otherwise, the cake consists of only flour, eggs, sugar, butter and a few spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Oh, but was it good!
Maybe growing up on “Poor Man’s Fruitcake” is the reason I can resist the “modern” fruitcake with candied pineapple, cherries, and other fruits as well as gourmet nuts.
How many times have you received a fruitcake as a gift and quickly passed it on to someone else? Maybe subconsciously you also think that the commercial fruitcake of today is too gooey and sweet, and would be better if homemade. Nevertheless, it is the season for fruitcake. Surprise someone, and make it homemade.
Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org