Friday, August 11, 2017

Defiant Fruitcakes

Filed under "Lost Desserts" Hundred-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake Found in 'Excellent Condition Conservators with Antarctic Heritage Trust have uncovered a perfectly preserved fruitcake that dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910.
A curious headline made me think of my Victorian grandmother who made fruitcake every fall for Christmas gifts. It did seem like they would keep forever. I guess that Hundred-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake Found in 'Excellent Condition is proof enough.

When the nights began to draw in, my grandmother would haul out the dried fruit she had stockpiled in the closet, usually three types of raisins, including tiny tart currants, and golden sultanas; sometimes she had dried figs, prunes, or Medjool dates; candied ginger, and the prerequisite jars of preserved glacéed fruit—a mixture of citrus, citron (candied melon peel) and candied cherries. (She used to make glacéed fruit from scratch—I remember helping her make candied orange rinds.) And a bottle of port.

We'd crack pecans and walnuts from 25-pound bags, tossing the buggy ones in the fire along with the shells. They'd sizzle and hiss like snakes as we gazed into the fire while she told me stories.

In Ireland, Valencia oranges were a special Christmas gift. They arrived from Spain wrapped in foil, and were cherished right down to the rind. Dried raisins and nuts were hard to come by, and spices were a luxury few could afford, so women hoarded the ingredients, when they could get them, for that special steamed Christmas pudding or wedding cake. In Ireland, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes: a symbol of wealth and abundance.

The key ingredients of the fruitcake were part of a curious family history. They were foot soldiers marching in an act of defiance agains unjust land laws. During the 1920s, Asians and Indians, ineligible for US citizenship, couldn't own farmland in California. This made my Irish grandfather angry, so he bought farmland in Fresno for his friend Jahn Singh, and held the land title to circumvent the unjust alien land laws. 

Every autumn Jahn Singh remembered our family with bushels of fruits and nuts.  My grandmother would receive crates of oranges, raisins, pecans and walnuts as payment for the Fresno farmland that my grandfather had bought for Jahn. 

When the anti-Japanese California Alien Land Laws of 1913, and of 1920, also known as the Webb-Haney Act, were repealed in the 1950s, my grandfather turned the land title over to Jahn Singh. 
The law prohibited "aliens ineligible for citizenship " from owning agricultural land or possessing long-term leases over it. It affected the Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrant farmers in California....The California Alien Land Law of 1920 continued the 1913 law filling many of its loopholes... the leasing of land for a period of three years or less was no longer allowed; owning of stock in companies that acquired agricultural land was forbidden; and guardians or agents of ineligible aliens were required to submit an annual report on their activities. —Wiki
Something ancient was evoked as my grandmother assembled the ingredients. Making fruitcake was a many day affair, from making the candied fruit, to shelling the nuts, and soaking the dried fruit.

My grandmother soaked the dried fruit overnight in port, or rum. Next morning, she sifted the flour with baking soda, and a litany of spices (equal parts cinnamon, ginger, and a scant measurement of nutmeg, allspice, clove and mace) to coat the dried fruit and nutmeats. Then she doused the dry mixture with a mixture of creamed butter, eggs, brown sugar and molasses. During Prohibition, bootleg whiskey was used to soak the dried fruit if a bottle port couldn't be finagled from the church stores.

My grandmother mixed the ingredients up with her large knotted hands in vast ceramic vats, standing over them like a field marshall. The round, and half round cake pans were already well greased and the bottoms lined with oiled brown paper bags.

She filled the cake pans to the brim (fruitcake doesn't rise), tamping them down on the table with soft thuds to dislodge any air bubbles. Then she placed the cakes in three tiers on tall racks inside the vast aluminum canning pot half-filled with water. The canning pot was a modern day version of the cauldron. It double-trouble, boiled and bubbled. 

The fruitcakes were steamed atop the stove for several hours, they were never baked in the oven. The stem vent atop the canning pot lid, with its three roller latches, chattered a little song and dance into the evening hours as I drew pictures with my finger on the steamy kitchen windows and dripping with condensation. By the way, fruitcake, a steamed pudding, is a medieval dish, pretty much unchanged across the centuries. 

Once the fruitcakes had cooled overnight, there was a bathing ritual (in whiskey) a swaddling ritual (wrapped in thin muslin or in cheesecloth) and a cloaking ritual (in tinfoil), before they were placed in their air-tight Christmas tins. They needed to be carefully tended during the first few months, dressed and bathed every few days until they ripened. She kept a few extra fruitcakes on hand to ripen, as fruitcake was deemed best when it was left to ripen (or ferment) at least 3 months, to a year, or longer. A union of space and time.

Fruitcake was never eaten fresh from the steamer. The flavors needed time to mellow and meld into a rich marriage of spiced goodness. Months, years, even. She had a few fruitcake that were ancient. Not 100 years old, but old enough. The time-defying secret was in the ritual bathing in booze. Fruitcakes were unwrapped to receive an annual anniversary bath of booze to preserve them, then rewrapped, placed in tins, and stored in dark cupboards. And later, the back of the refrigerator.

Whenever unexpected guests came over, she'd bring out thin slices of the dense, boozy, nut-studded fruitcake, along with the pot of Irish tea and whiskey. The thin fruitcake slices were like a rich mosaic of stained glass panes on the shining plates, Sadly, they would touch the fruitcake, perhaps thinking it was the commercial American version, a baked sawdust hockey-puck affair, studded with plastic candied citron and day-glo cherries, so she eventually quit making it. And I never thought to ask her for the recipe.

How did the fruitcake, something once so opulent, and made with love, become such a hated symbol of the holidays? The substitution of facsimile ingredients: rancid nuts, inferior dried fruit, and the prerequisite jars of commercial glacéed fluorescent fruit that swept the market during the 60s and 70s, directly led to the fruitcake's fall from grace. The honeymoon was over. Americans said, Let's call the whole thing off. Another tradition bit the dust. And the very word was beggared and denigrated to an insult of insanity: She's a real fruitcake.

It must've made my grandmother sad to let go of such a venerable tradition, to let die a family labor of love that was passed down the generations from her mother, and her mother's mother, in Ireland. A family heirloom. I still collect the fruitcake tins, though I haven't made a fruitcake, ever. None of my cousins would dream of making fruitcake today, My mother was not domestic, and all my aunts are gone now... no one left to carry on the tradition.


FIRST DRAFT:
My grandmother made fruitcake every year for Christmas gifts. There was a bathing ritual (in whiskey) a swaddling ritual (in cheesecloth) and a cloaking ritual (in tinfoil). She kept a few on hand to ripen, as fruitcake was deemed best when it was at least 3 months to a year old. It was never eaten fresh from the steamer. It was steamed in a large pot atop the stove, not baked. BTW, fruitcake, a steamed pudding, is a medieval dish, pretty much unchanged across the centuries. Whenever guests came over, she'd bring out the fruitcake with the tea and whiskey. Sadly, nobody would touch the stuff, and she eventually quit making it, but it made her sad to let go of a tradition that was passed down to her from her mother, in Ireland.

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