Fruitcake. Does Anyone Like It? Does It Matter?
I’m sure I’m not the only home baker to have fallen in love with Truman Capote’s reminiscence, “A Christmas Memory.”
Published in 1956, it sketches the relationship between Capote as a boy and his cousin. Mentally and emotionally, this woman in her 60s was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”
The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst.
Every fall, young Truman and his cousin/friend break into their piggy banks, go shopping, and bake 30 fruitcakes. They send the cakes out into the larger world to people they like. The recipients range from a traveling knife grinder to President Franklin Roosevelt.
“It’s always the same,” Capote writes. “[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces, ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”
I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to others. The Truman Capote who is narrating is removed in time and space from his cousin. One year, not long after Christmas, he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.
Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures — their marshaling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies whiskey for the cakes — he brings both his younger self and his cousin back to life.
The bakers keep scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they receive for the cakes. The notes give them a feeling of connection, as he writes, “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”
Cooking gives me that feeling of connection to others every day, but most of all when it’s fruitcake weather.
My precise grandmother and my lively mother had to made fruitcake every year. It was part of their identity. They taught me the process — soaking, mixing, baking, wrapping, dousing and giving.
When I make it, I'm once more surrounded by the warmth, love and laughter that filled their kitchens and their lives.
Food writer Tinky Weisblat lives in Hawley, Massachusetts.