There are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else's,
but behind all of them, there's only one truth and that is that there's no truth.
FLANNERY O'CONNOR, Wise Blood
We had a quiet Thanksgiving, the kind I like, which is to say different than some. I'm more interested in the holiday as an excuse to use some of my good dishes and set a pretty table than I am in food or guests. For me it's about table-top design, color combinations, floral arrangements and lighting.
The twins, Tara and Tyler, my 18-year-old niece and nephew joined us for dinner. One of my son's friends dropped by as we were enjoying desert and I asked if he wanted to join us in a piece of pie -- pumpkin or cherry? He said he'd already had three Thanksgiving dinners. He's a big guy and, under the circumstances, I didn't feel obligated to press him into eating more.
Without being asked he offered: "My father's an alcoholic and he always invites 30 or 40 people for Thanksgiving, makes three turkeys. One baked, another barbecued and one fried. I ate a lot of turkey today."
I had a vision of sawhorse and plywood tables in a garage with people getting drunk and insulting each other over pumpkin pie. I smiled and fondled my antique Austrian crystal relish dish. My niece asked what I planned to do the day after Thanksgiving and I explained about fruit cake, how her grandmother, my mother, before her death 25 years ago always made fruit cake the day after Thanksgiving, enough cakes to share with her children and grandchildren.
I have not carried on the tradition until now. Last January, I bought tubs of candied fruit -- half off -- and put them in the freezer where they rattled around for a year among the frozen peas and packs of skinless chicken breasts, waiting for the day after Thanksgiving to arrive.
|Tara selfie in her Black Friday bargain|
My niece asked where the idea of fruit cake came from. I told her my truth. It came to me instantly like an infusion of wise blood into my beating heart. I simply knew the answer.
Long ago, I told her from my vision, in Ireland in olden times cottiers made fruitcake as a way to preserve fruit and enjoy it through the winter and spring. Fresh or dried fruit, nuts and berries were mixed into a dense, calorie-laden batter, wrapped in coarse cloth and laid up in the root cellar, preserved and moistened with occasional shots of whiskey.
Farm work was heavy labor, I said, seeing in my mind a young man walking alone down a muddy road toward a verdant farm field his lunch tied up in a hank of old cloth, a fruitcake slice inside. It provided a reward and extra calories for the work required to plow and till, I said, making ready for spring planting. The farmers would take a few nibbles of the whiskey softened cake as needed and keep going. Over time, fruitcake got fancied up and served as a holiday treat, I told her. My niece nodded and said she'd never tasted it, which shocked me.
Since I made up this history of fruitcake as a Thanksgiving tale to amuse my niece, I checked my blarney online and found it not far off, this from Irish historian P.W. Joyce (1906):
"All the various kinds of meal and flour were baked into cakes or loaves of different shapes. The usual word for a cake was bairgen, now pronounced borreen: hence borreen-brack, 'speckled cake' (speckled with currants and raisins), eaten on November eve, (I'm thinking cake left over from the year before) now often written barn-brack.
Joyce reports flour was usually mixed with water to make dough: "but bread made of flour and milk was also much in use. Honey was often kneaded up with cakes as a delicacy: and occasionally the roe of a salmon was similarly used. Wheaten bread was considered the best, as at present: barley-bread was poor. Yeast, or barm, or leaven was used both in baking and in brewing."
While fruitcake has been made since ancient Roman times, making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique...
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 321-322)
Images courtesy of National Museums of Northern Ireland
So, today, like my ancestors, I make old-fashioned fruitcake with as much blarney as I can muster. My mother's time-honored recipe is lost and I've gotten the one I'm using from the Internet. But, just like the olden days, I will conjure my wise blood to fill in the culinary gaps and buy cheap whiskey to doctor the loaves while giving thanks for rich preserved fruit and butter to make the batter better.
Wish me luck and, in truthe, I wishe ye Happy Holidays!