Averyell A. Kessler
I’ve never liked fruitcake. Not then, not now, not ever. It’s a lifelong affliction. Even as a distraught hostess pleads, I shake my head no.
“Averyell, would you like a nice piece fruitcake?” The word nice is a red flag warning.
“No, thanks,” I say, as I stare at a glistening fifteen pounder ensconced on a crystal cake stand.
“Sure?” hostess asks. “Aunt Tillie made it. This one’s better than last years.”
“I’ll pass. Just coffee……………please.”
“I have whipped cream topping?”
“Too full,” I whimper. “Maybe later.” About five years later, I say sotto voce.
In the alternative, the hostess’s sumptuous pecan pie disappears in moments, as does her deep-dish peach cobbler. Sadly, the fruitcake remains, as a lone sentinel of holiday disaster.
For me, fruitcake is a complete puzzle. Who makes it, how and why? Every year, I see containers of glazed fruit forming a pyramid in the grocery store. Somehow, it disappears even though I rarely see anyone pushing a cart full of red, yellow, and green dried fruit. The colors are interesting. Perhaps someone plans to make an edible traffic light. Who knows?
My family’ s fruitcake history is dim. My mother never purchased a Claxton brick at the Jitney, but we received a fruitcake every year from a relative up north. It arrived shortly after Thanksgiving wrapped in cellophane and nestled in an elaborately decorated tin. “What are we gonna do with it?” Mama wailed. “Your grandfather won’t take it. Maybe he knows someone who’ll enjoy it.” He did not.
A friend in Tylertown produced a somewhat palatable version with an eerie similarity to gingerbread. After it emerged from the oven, she pricked it with toothpicks until it resembled an angry porcupine. As a finale, she spent 10 days manipulating the toothpicks while ladling brandy into the cake until it reached lethal stage. No as bad as some, but far superior to no-bake fruitcake which appeared in my law office break room. Its source was unknown, and it remained untouched for two weeks until a thin green mold oozed in from the edges. Sadly, a mouse lost its life trying to drag it off the coffee pot counter. Only the strong survive.
The ultimate fruitcake extravaganza occurred when I was a fourth grader at Power School. It began, on the first day of December when an interesting invitation arrived. Louella Thompson and her husband Jeb invited us to their annual Christmas open house, a singular social event starring Jackson’s glitterati. It was the first time Mama and Daddy had been invited. Children were welcome too. We would all go.
Louella’s genealogy was a continuing source of pride – for her, but a serious bore for everyone else. She discussed her glorious heritage at every opportunity, whispering that it stretched back to George Washington before the illustrious general ever thought about crossing the Delaware. Louella was a large woman, with entwined grey hair, and a chest substantial enough to hold her sizable collection of DAR pins as well as a purple dawn camellia. She and Jeb lived in one of the beautiful State Street houses that dug deep into Jackson’s history before drug stores and squatty office buildings scraped them away. My mother was thrilled that we were attending a party in the grandest of all, the Thompson’s three-story mansion that resembled a wedding cake.
On the night of the party, Louella welcomed us warmly and showed us into her parlor, a gracious room with green rugs, green walls, shiny green curtains, and more chandeliers than the showroom at Century Electric on Capital Street. I was stepping into a fairy tale palace. Jeb shook Daddy’s hand and propelled him towards the bar. Mama and I entered to the dining room to look at Louella’s massive Christmas tree. Everything went well for a while. Mama joined a group of her chattering friends, while I circled the refreshment table sampling thin mints, chocolate covered pecans, and iced petit fours dotted with sleigh bells.
Suddenly Louella burst into the dining room pinging a spoon against a tall crystal glass. “Attention, everyone” she shouted. “I have a special surprise. Conversation stopped as Louella’s guests crowded into the dining room.
“I’ve prepared a special treat,” she announced, pointing to a hulking mahogany buffet at the far end of the room. With Joan Crawford drama, she lifted a heavy silver cover and revealed a glistening white cake.
“This,” she said, clearing her throat, “is Martha Washington’s special fruit cake. The recipe’s a secret, of course,” she giggled. “Straight from Mount Vernon to me.” Everyone in the dining room froze. Looming dread parted the curtains and entered the room.” “And………I’m going to flambe it. Come close children, gather round.” It was a royal command. We watched entranced as Louella produced a bottle of Christian Brothers Brandy and poured it over the cake.
“Now watch,” she said, as Jeb turned off the lights. Once, twice, she tried to light it without success. Finally, with an extra dose of Brandy and a lit candle, the cake exploded in tongues of blue flames. When Jeb turned on the lights, Louella’s face was a mask of soot. The cake was a lump of coal from Santa’s bad children bag. Smoke clouded the chandelier arms and drifted to the ceiling. My father was one of many stifling laughter and holding down a sneeze.
“Who wants the first piece,” she shouted, oblivious to her appearance or the cake’s sad condition. No one spoke. “Children?” she continued. I backed away from the table.
“Someone?” she said, waving a knife. “Surely, someone wants a taste. It’s historic!” Finally, Louella sank into a chair and wept. Jeb reversed the disaster with a large platter of Christmas cookies, decorated cupcakes, and brownies. Redemption! The children swarmed like hungry locusts, and Jeb opened multiple bottles of champagne. Although Louella disappeared, the night was unforgettable and the party was a great success.