A Dark and Spicy Tradition
Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week
Hand to heart. This one is very simple. Just place your hand on your chest, slightly to the left of midline, or wherever feels comfortable. I find myself doing this spontaneously when I feel compassion for someone else, or for myself. I'll do it when I need to calm down a little, when I am a little surprised, or when I have been shocked by something
Try keeping your hand there for 10 or 15 seconds (or more) and see if anything changes.
In these social distancing days, it can also be a hug substitute: You touch my heart--my heart to yours.
"Hand to heart" resembles some of the simpler zapchen exercises (though technically it is not one), in that it's something we may find ourselves doing naturally, without really thinking about it, like sighing or yawning. As we try to do these things more consciously, they can become everyday habits that can help lead us back to more calm, more centeredness.
A Dark and Spicy Tradition
“Oh goodie!” says my eighty-six year old Aunt Ruth. “I’ve always wanted to do this!”
It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving and we are gathered in my sister Robin’s kitchen in Connecticut—Aunt Ruth, Robin, my other sister Carol, and myself. We’re doing what our family has done for decades on this holiday weekend—making fruitcake.
But wait! Before you close this post in distaste, or tell the story of the fruitcake that has been in your family for years—as a doorstop—there’s something you need to know: this is not the rock-hard slab that has been the brunt of so many jokes, full of bitter fruit. It is rich and dark and mysterious, a moist concoction of dates, figs, dried apricots, raisins and spices, and more nuts than you can imagine. There's not a shred of citron in sight.
My grandmother, Ruth’s mother, started making fruitcake over 90 years ago to give away at Christmas. “At first I was too little to help,” recalls my aunt, “and then Mum stopped making it when Daddy died.” Ruth was five years old. “By the time she started making it again, I had gotten married.” Now Ruth is the family matriarch, having outlived all five of her siblings, including my mother.
My parents picked up the fruitcake tradition at some point in the 1950s, pressing all of us who were old enough to safely follow directions into service. Some years we produced as many as twenty-five or thirty cakes, ransacking the cupboards to find enough pans, even using our ancient aluminum ice cube trays—sans dividers, of course.
When I was still too small to stir the giant pan of stiff batter, or handle the steaming pot of fruit, I was assigned to crack and pick the nuts or trace, cut, grease and flour the pan liners we made from brown paper bags. I may have complained about all the work but it was fun, and I looked forward to it every year.
After we had all grown up and moved on, my parents continued their annual labor of love, even after they retired to Vermont, though they gradually cut back on the number of cakes. But as they got into their late seventies and then their eighties, the tradition became more and more of a burden.
What to do? I was many hours away in Virginia (the sole ex-pat of the family). My older brother and his Jamaican wife made their own even darker and rum-drenched version of fruitcake. My younger brother and his wife don’t like fruitcake. (Am I really related to them?)
So, when Carol and Robin, both fruitcake lovers and great cooks, offered to help out, my parents gratefully agreed, thrilled the tradition would continue. After my parents died I began to come north for Thanksgiving instead of Christmas, and gladly joined the fruitcake brigade.
Ruth, a fine cook in her own right, is busy peering at the brown and aging recipe card, measuring out dry ingredients. Between the cinnamon and cloves Ruth has sifted into the flour, and the fruit simmering on the stove, the house is beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.
Decorating is the last step before we pop the cakes in the oven. Glazed green and red cherries, candied pineapple and whole nuts—our latent artists emerge as we create flowers, trees and geometric designs. Last year Carol branched out into slivered almonds, designing a mosaic crèche worthy of framing.
Although I consider myself to be a pretty good cook, and have even cooked professionally on two estates, it is my sisters who are the fruitcake queens (and czarinas of the Christmas cookie) in our family. They know by instinct and long practice exactly when to take the fruitcakes out of the oven so they will be moist, yet fully cooked.
But then a couple of years ago, fruitcakes still in the oven, the two of them went out to buy more ingredients for another batch of Christmas cookies, leaving me in charge of that oh-so-crucial decision.
“How will I know?” I wailed, trying not to clutch at them as they went out the door. “You two are the experts!”
“Oh, you’ll do fine,” they called back as they waltzed off to the car.
But I didn’t. I let them burn. Not too badly, but they certainly were a little darker than normal and definitely too dry around the edges.
“But the centers were still a little sticky!” I moaned when they got back.
My sisters were very kind about it but I learned my lesson: it’s much better to have them a tiny bit underdone in the center than overdone on the edges—at their best these fruitcakes are first cousins to a rich steamed pudding. This year Carol and Robin kindly stay until the cakes are out of the oven. They are, of course, perfect.
And Aunt Ruth? She is ecstatic. “Yippee! I finally did it!” she crows, laughing. “I never thought it would happen.”
* * * * * * * * *
This post recalls an earlier Thanksgiving weekend, 2013 to be exact. Our lovely Aunt Ruth died peacefully on January 4, 2019 at the ripe old age of 92. We all miss her and were so happy to help her fulfill a life long desire.
This year I am safely staying home, so I won't be joining the fruitcake brigade in Connecticut. But my sisters and I will still be making our fruitcakes together--thanks to the amazing power of Zoom!
I've posted a PDF of the recipe for this luscious fruitcake here, in case you're interested.
May you have a safe, connected, grateful and delicious Thanksgiving. Or if you are alone or not otherwise okay, may you know deep in your soul that you are loved.
Until next time,
Steaming pot, unknown
Hand on heart, Darius Bashar, unSplash
Fruit in pot, unknown
Aunt Ruth with feline friend, unknown