I’ve never liked fruitcake. But each holiday season, as the mailorder catalogs arrive, offering the cakes in many variations, long-ago memories are kindled.
In my childhood days, half mile or so from our house was an old estate, the manor long gone, the grounds a dank tangle of native pecan trees, magnolias, underbrush, and honeysuckle vines. We kids spent many an hour in adventures there, despite our mothers cautioning us of winos, hobos, and derelicts from the adjacent GM&O railroad, of snakes, poison ivy, and assorted other perils. We fought many a “war” in those woods, and carried out countless covert attempts to make explosives from half-spent railroad flares, medicines filched from the family cabinets, and assorted other ingredients. To our utter dismay, success always eluded us — nothing ever exploded. We hunted for buried treasure, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt there had to be something valuable secreted somewhere in those woods if we just dug, poked, and prodded enough.
We never encountered the winos or derelicts our mothers warned us about, and in the unconcerned abandon of youth in that kinder, gentler era of never-locked doors, neighborliness, and trust, it never occurred to us that we should be fearful of anyone we might encounter.
In going through my mother’s accumulations following her death, I ran across a yellowed paper with the recipe for “Five Pound Fruit Cake.”
The memories tumbled forth — of long-ago Novembers, when she would bundle my younger brothers and me in our warm outfits and we’d walk up the railroad tracks to the old estate to gather pecans for her fruitcakes. We’d make an afternoon of it, searching for the small, hard-shelled pecans among the fallen leaves, acorns, and debris.
Finally, buckets filled, we’d walk back along the tracks, a red ball of sun reflected in the shiny steel of the rails, the haggard, barren cotton stalks in the adjacent field casting long, ghostly shadows.
The next day, mother would get the big, heavy hammer and crack the pecans. That night, by the fire, we’d pick the meats from the broken hulls.
In the next day or so, in a carefully cleaned washpan, she’d mix all the ingredients — pecans, English walnuts, raisins, cloves, cinnamon, and other good-smelling spices, bright yellow candied pineapple, and red and green cherries. To this day, I can see in my mind’s eye the brownish, gooey, cake batter, with all the multi-hued fruits and nuts, as she spooned it into cake pans. The delicious aromas of the cakes baking in the oven created an even greater awareness of the Christmas season not that far away.
When the baking was done, she would decorate them with more red and green cherries, pecan halves, and pineapple slices and stash them in the closet. In a few days, after the flavors had time to mingle a bit, the cakes would be sprinkled with wine or whiskey (though Mississippi was “dry” and no one could legally buy or sell any alcoholic beverage, she always managed to prevail upon the good graces of the county sheriff for a bottle or two of illicit spirits that he’d confiscated from lawbreakers — and he, of course, was remembered with a cake).
Several times prior to Christmas, she’d douse the cakes again, then put them back in the closet for more mellowing. Finally, a few days before the holiday, my brothers and I would be dispatched on our bicycles to deliver the cakes.
I never really liked her fruitcake. I’d eat a bit for ceremony’s sake — but I much preferred her chocolate cake, topped with frosting made from sugar and cocoa, stirred and cooked in a heavy black iron skillet.
But now, each year when the mailorder catalogs clutter the mailbox and I see the naked branches of the Delta’s pecan orchards silhouetted against a cold, leaden sky, I recall those long-ago treks to gather pecans … and I can almost smell her fruitcakes slowly baking.
I could not, in my most fanciful dreams then, have envisioned all the twists and turns that are the maze of life, nor could I have fathomed how quickly childhood would be gone.
Now, there are only wistful memories of those November pecan gatherings, of a fading sun glinting on shiny railroad tracks, fruitcakes baking, “wars” with my ragtag coterie of chums, futile attempts at bomb-making, mother and family and friends I did not know would not stay forever young, and treasures that were everywhere about me had I only been able to recognize them.