Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Fruitcake Weather

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

That’s how Truman Capote describes the start of an annual ritual in his childhood home, a sprawling old place in a southern country town. His world revolves around the kitchen where he passes his days with a 60-something-year-old cousin and the dog they share.

It’s an insular little world he describes in A Christmas Memory. And he makes that fact palpable by neglecting to present us with almost a single other character. But that world feels whole, as though there’s not much room for anyone besides the simple-minded lady, the seven-year-old boy and their rat terrier.

Capote whittles his story to fit the shapes that memories occupy in our minds: leaving out the mundane details we might rationally ask — where the money comes from to run this big house, who does the shopping for food and prepares the meals — in favor of the stuff that feels important emotionally. We learn about this cousin and the dog, the baby stroller they use to gather pecans, what they eat together for breakfast or supper, and the big stove that heats the kitchen; not much else.

The biggest part of the story he gives over to the intricate preparations necessary to turn out 31 fruitcakes with very few resources besides their own enthusiasm.

So what’s so important about making fruitcakes — a confection that’s become the dull punchline of a dozen holiday jokes in the minds of Americans — and why so many? Whom are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.

It’s a funny thing about Christmas. It brings out in many of us this need for connection, a need we may have shrugged off the rest of the year. And, in the best of circumstances, those of us who feel that need most keenly reach for it according to the rules of the season, doing for people with whom we want to experience that connection.

Before I’d ever read Capote’s story, I decided to start making fruitcakes for loved ones at Christmastime. It allowed me to feel connected to friends in ways a store-bought gift never could. For some reason, a gift you make yourself — and particularly food — doesn’t seem to impose the same burden of reciprocation. It’s too simple to carry any monetary value and too ephemeral, too easy to get rid of (either by eating or trashing it) to create any real bother. And fruitcake reached back into some collective ideal of Christmas I gleaned early on from Sears catalogs, holiday movies and the ads I saw in magazines as a kid.

In the least invasive way I could imagine, a fruitcake asked people to allow me the favor of feeling close to them for a few months of the year.

I could believe I was reaching back to some age-old tradition of Christmases gone by — though certainly not any tradition I knew as a child — and at the same time, reaching out to people around me in the present season. Making cakes was my willful attempt to weave a fabric of continuity that encompassed mass-cultural memories and the Loved Ones I longed for over the holidays, even if they were people from whom I’d grown distant over the years. It wrapped those friends and me in the warmth of some time-honored Christmas tradition, even if the tradition wasn’t really mine to share, borrowed as it was from my crazy idea of what a Proper Christmas would be.

What did I know about fruitcakes? My childhood Christmases played out in the 1960s, in a depressed little town in central Connecticut where our only traditions were assembling our artificial tree and decorating it with the dime-store ornaments we’d carefully packed away the year before. And, as fond as I was of those ornaments, they only seemed like heirlooms because I couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t have them. This obsessive idea of holiday tradition was something I’d pasted together with the pieces I appropriated from the cover art on Christmas albums and the four-color pages of the Sears Wishbook. The year I announced I would make a plum pudding, it was after months of staring at the photos in our three-volume set of The Life Book of Christmas.

It  wasn’t all my idea, this business of mining the collective culture for memories of a past none of us had ever experienced. On the contrary: the frisson between enshrined memories and the present is a central piece of the Christmas experience. From the earliest days of our modern Christmas — beginning with the stories of Washington Irving and later, Charles Dickens† — looking back to a kinder time, one in which age-old traditions were cherished and revered, was part and parcel of the holiday. It became impossible to separate the holiday from the collective nostalgia around it, even if that nostalgia had been carefully manufactured.

As a kid, I’d imagine that the very traditions I loved — listening to carols, decorating the house, exchanging gifts — were not only those I’d performed for most of my seven or eight years on the planet, but were also the same traditions carried on by those Victorian ladies and gentlemen depicted on Christmas cards or inside the gatefold of our Mitch Miller and the Gang album. As I’ve grown older, the layers have grown deeper and more complicated, blending fragments of Christmases from my childhood with those manufactured memories of Christmases from some golden era. Before my mother died, I was able to get hold of a few of those remaining dime-store ornaments. And as I take them out of storage each year, I feel myself floating in a dream spun from my own memories and those I borrowed from the images I saw around me as a kid.

In the most beautiful and subtle ways, Capote recreates that same frisson of memory as we read A Christmas Memory. We’re never unclear that this is a story from the narrator’s past, a narrator who is now a full-grown and articulate adult. And to remind us, he’s careful to lift us gently from that past from time to time.

When Christmas morning finally arrives for our characters, the two best friends can’t wait to exchange their gifts for one another. Unable to afford anything more, each has made a kite for the other, as they did the year before and the year before that. They’re eager to get outside and to launch their new gifts:

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we run to a pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too).

That simple aside reminds us that our story is — as its title announces — only a memory. And the memory is all the more precious because time has changed the world in which it first took shape, dissolving all the beautiful details our narrator describes.

So each year, I begin the same ritual as Capote’s characters. I search for some connection to people in my life — however distant our actual connections may be — and for a connection to some golden past of tradition and ritual. Beginning in mid-summer, I start to collect the ingredients that will go into my cakes.

Fruitcake is the mirror opposite of a delicate confection. It involves no skill. What makes or breaks the quality of the cake is what goes into it. And the only reason I can imagine that most Americans don’t like — or even know — these cakes, is that the store-bought varieties use ingredients that just don’t taste good.

Like a stew, the flavors of the various ingredients that go into a fruitcake should hold onto their individual characters, even as they blend together to form an overall impression. A good fruitcake offers a variety of fresh nuts, dried fruits with a range of flavors (not just an endless parade of raisins), and candied fruits and peels made with real skill to preserve their flavors and textures. All this stuff can be hard to find and costs money. So if the search for the components of a proper fruitcake won’t give you pleasure, you should probably forget the whole thing. It’s precisely because the ingredients are rare that the process — collecting the ingredients, baking the cakes, and bathing them with brandy as they ripen over a couple of months’ time — takes on meaning and importance. With every moment or dollar I spend in this enterprise, I feel that I’m doing something special. That makes the gesture feel special. And in some distant way, it makes me feel special, too.

Finding nuts isn’t much of a challenge; I use equal portions of pecans, English walnuts, hazel nuts and black walnuts. Black walnuts aren’t as easy to find as the other three, but their deep and oily flavor makes a good base for the higher-pitched notes some of the fruits will bring.

Dried fruits are pretty easy to come by these days, too. So arriving at a suitable mix of flavors, colors and textures isn’t a big challenge; figuring out your own mix is part of the fun. A small portion of raisins is fine, but too many will leave the cake with an insipid uniformity of taste. I use black or red raisins (Thompson or Red Flame), along with some golden variety and even a small amount of currants. Try to get organic varieties whenever possible, if only to avoid the nasty addition of sulfur dioxide used to keep light-colored fruits from turning brown as they dry. Cape gooseberries add a bright tang to the whole, as do dried cranberries. Dried sour cherries contribute a surprising richness with their combination of sweet and sour.

Candied fruits present the biggest challenge. When I was a kid, you could find containers of mixed ones in the baking aisle of the local Stop & Shop. And those same nasty, particolored bits are still available in most stores today. But you’ll want to find candied fruits and peels that would be delicious to eat on their own, confections made with care and skill. For reasons I don’t understand, it seems that no one on this side of the Atlantic wants to put that kind of effort into their production. So we look to the other side. I’ve always found a great selection made by Agrimontana at the Chelsea Market in Manhattan. When I moved to Toronto this year, I brought this year’s supply along with me. Until I find a local supply, I’ll continue to rely on my New York source.

Candied sour cherries, lemon peel, orange peel, grapefruit peel, whole clementines and citron sparkle like semi-precious stones when you cut them into pieces large enough to be recognizable in a slice of cake. But the most important ingredient — and the most difficult to find — is the candied stalk of the angelica plant. [For a quick point of reference, consider that angelica is a primary ingredient in Chartreuse.] I can’t say with confidence that without its subtle herb flavor the cakes would taste any different; I’m not even sure that anyone knows it’s in there besides me. But its importance grows in direct proportion to the difficulty I have finding it. The more precious the ingredients, the more precious the gift … you get the picture.

Come Labor Day weekend, I mix all of my finds with a lot of eggs and butter, some flour and blackstrap molasses, and a healthy dose of allspice. Then I bake them slowly for three hours or more and bathe the finished cakes in brandy over the next eight weeks. In early December, I pack up each one, attach the gift card I’ve made to describe each carefully considered ingredient and ship them off.

From most of the recipients, I get a polite acknowledgement; from some, no acknowledgement at all. A few dear friends seem to recognize how much the giving means to me and send a heartfelt note in return. But my closest friend always gives me so frank and detailed a critique of each year’s offering that I truly feel the connection I hoped my gift might conjure.

Another Christmas comes and goes. But for a moment, I feel connected; wrapped warmly in a web strung between the past and the present, among friends and family far away. And inside that web, I have shape and meaning and purpose; maybe just for a moment, but in the scheme of things, a moment like that is nothing to sneeze at.

† Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20) contains a string of stories about a country manor where Christmas is kept as tradition would have it. However, the traditions described were carefully fashioned to fit a new ideal of the holiday; one much more domestic and far less raucous than in documented traditions of the period and preceding centuries. Similarly, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) uses the holiday as a method to promote his very personal political agenda: charity and social conscience over the encroachment of an industrial economy ever more ruthless in its use of (and contempt for) the lower classes on whose backs it was built. Interestingly enough, the politics of the two authors couldn’t have been further apart, one from the other.

For a careful and truly inspired examination of the origins of our modern Christmas holiday, see The Battle for Christmas (Stephen Nissenbaum, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Comic Cavalcade No. 9, Winter, 1945To a solitary child, the world outside his head can feel a bit oppressive.

Each morning of the school week becomes an exercise in steely determination. He knows he has to cross that border at the edge of his internal life and enter into the world outside. So with every step toward the school yard, he tenses another psychic muscle (and probably a few physical ones). Like the proverbial fish out of water, he struggles to survive in that strange, hostile environment. And if he’s a kid like me, he sneaks back as often as possible into the safety of his fantasies for a quick gulp of fresh air.

I felt very much on my own as a kid. But I figured a lot of people had to feel the same way. Why else would catechism classes and Sunday masses make such a point about this god who knew us intimately and understood what was in our hearts? If there weren’t an audience eager to hear it, why tell us He gave more credit for good intentions than for how often you were able to hit a damn softball at recess? I believed that story. And it gave me a lot of comfort late at night while I lay in the dark, feeling very much alone. No matter how lousy things seemed then — at age seven or eight — I felt confident there was someone who understood me, watched over me, and gave me points for what went on inside my head.

The church promised that my suffering now would earn me a reward from heaven later. Unfortunately, the reward it promised was a seat for all eternity at the right hand of Jesus. Now I’ll admit there was some satisfaction in knowing that those people who made my days miserable — the bullies, the gym teachers, the school crossing guards — would be spending that same eternity in the sulfurous pits of hell. But all that seemed an awfully long way off. I’d really been hoping for some payoff a little sooner and right here on earth … ideally one with a more positive spin than simple revenge.

I was an earnest child, however disturbed. And being earnest, I worked hard to see beyond the bland picture the church painted of its god’s Celestial Order. I sensed something of real substance in the messages the church offered — a benevolent god, the value of good intentions, peace on earth, goodwill toward men — something that felt right to me. Moreover, the truth of those messages came back to me 100 times over and through as many channels in the greater [and by “greater,” I mean both “way better” and “secular”] culture around me. All those messages collected in my head and, over time, they formed bright crystals, as hard and brilliant as pieces of rock candy. And in those crystals I saw a vision of a heaven on earth.

What if goodwill were able to trump brute strength? What if the reward for treating people with kindness were greater than the value of the milk money I had to guard from the bigger kids on the playground? And what if the true order of the universe included people empowered to reward good behavior and protect the weak from injustice?

That picture fit well enough with what they fed me in Saturday-morning catechism class. Certainly if we could pray to the Blessed Virgin or any number of saints to intercede on our behalf, then there might be other champions right here on earth. The evidence to support my theory was all around me.

Action Comics No. 93, February, 1946

I used to spend hours pouring over my brother’s old comic books in the basement. Every one of them was filled with stories of supernatural beings who hid their powers from the casual observer. But I knew their secrets. And I could see plainly that God put them on earth to avenge the weak and to fight for justice. Why else would he have given them those powers … and such enormous pecs, such pronounced abs, and the skintight outfits that showed them off so well? The crush I had for Superman grew as much from my appreciation for what he did as from the way he looked. And it never escaped my notice that he had to hide his most special qualities — his secret life — from the people around him, even as he shared them with me, his devoted reader.

The TV shows that filled my afternoons and evenings brought me stories of beautiful witches and genies, talking horses and automobiles. Like my superheroes, they hid what made them special in plain view of the dullards who filled their towns and cities. And like those superheroes, their purpose was to do right for the people they loved.

I wanted desperately to believe in such a world hidden just out of plain sight; a world of others, outsiders; a world in which super-powered good intentions created a kind of magic among the people around me. In a world like that, people would behave better; not because they had to, but because they’d understand the value in practicing a little kindness, in exercising simple civility. But it’s impossible to believe in something for very long without getting some small proof that it might exist out there, beyond the gray edges of the dull and the day-to-day.

And I got that proof. Every year, beginning with the day after Halloween, my eyes would light up with renewed hope in the promise of a better world.

On that day, King’s Department Store moved the last of the plastic masks and bags of candy to the purgatory of the 50%-off section. During the night before, workers set up a row of cheap, imported plastic trees down the center aisle of the store, covering them in Japanese twinkle lights, rotating Santa tree-toppers, and ornaments that blasted an ear-piercing sonic whistle their packages described as “a festive bird song.”

Walking into the store that day was like waking from a bad dream. The world had been scrubbed clean of its grim, day-to-day reality in a wave of carols, lights, tinsel and that fiberglass angel hair that’s probably still eating away at the lining of my lungs some 40 years later.

Christmastime was here. And the magic of a brighter, other world wasn’t just inside my head. For the next two months, everyone around me seemed compelled to pay homage — or at least a respectable amount of lip service — to a reality I knew was only just out of sight during the previous 10.

Even the pieces of the story I got from church were magical: a star in the east; a god born in a stable; shepherds and animals, angels and kings all coming to pay their respects to the promise of the season.

Typically, the church seemed to miss much of what was so wonderful about Christmas and embalmed even those magical elements in a rigid story that gave all the emphasis to the wrong characters. According to Catholicism, Baby Jesus sits at the center of the Christmas universe. And just like the plaster figurines we placed inside the stable my father built out of an old whiskey carton, His doting parents sit to either side of him. [NB: Mary gets considerably more emphasis here, since God chose her to bear His son. Joseph’s part is mostly one of patience and acceptance: good character traits in a supporting role, but hardly the stuff to inspire a cult of religious devotion.] There are shepherds who leave their flocks in order to visit the child; an ox and a lamb who watch over Him. Most wonderful of all is the choir of angels who sing carols and (I imagined) sound just like Mitch Miller and the Gang.

A Catholic View of the Celestial Hierarchy

It’s not that there’s any one thing so terribly wrong with this picture of the world at Christmastime. It’s the general lack of holiday spirit that bugs me. Compared with the truth I knew in my heart, the approved Catholic picture of the Celestial Hierarchy of the Christmas Season feels a bit stark. As I would see time and time again over the years, the church had clearly missed the point.

Any god who would create that star and all the drama leading up to the birth in a stable — the very splendor they preached from the pulpit — wouldn’t stop there. If God were truly in charge of the whole show, then nothing was outside of His plan. He wasn’t responsible only for the Baby Jesus and that star; it was clearly His idea to create tinsel and holiday record albums and those amazing little twinkle lights that didn’t even melt the branches on our plastic tree. He must even have had in mind styrofoam snow and those plastic flocked Santas, like the one that turned in an endless pirouette at the top of the biggest tree at King’s, its gears grinding so loudly you could hear it way over in the shoe department.

And what about the TV programs? Wasn’t it part of His plan to create the specials that played once a year throughout the month of December? And wasn’t He ultimately responsible for those wonderful episodes of the regular series that taught us about the true spirit of the season? Of course He was. This was His way of letting us know there truly were special people on earth whose only purpose was to make life a little kinder to the rest of us.

I was most confident of all in His plan to populate the world with those magical creatures who saved the rest of us from complete despair. If God could create Baby Jesus with the power to charm farm animals, turn water into wine and raise the dead, then He could certainly create Santa and Rudolph, Superman and Wonder Woman, the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future … and yes, even Samantha Stephens.

Bewitched, “A Vision of Sugar Plums” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired December 24, 1964)

The church was too bound up in its own doctrine to see what Christmas was really about. A more accurate picture of the Celestial Hierarchy of the Christmas Season would look like this:

The True Order of the Celestial Hierarchy

click on the image to explore the true order of things

For two glorious months, the world of my fantasies spilled out into the everyday. It bathed reality’s cold, hard truth in the soft shimmer of tinsel, in the glow of the twinkle lights and electric candles that lit up the long, dark nights of early winter. Most importantly of all, everyone took part in this fantasy of mine — the stores, the television programmers, the public library, my teachers and yes, the Catholic church, too. Hell, even that nasty school crossing guard had one of those Santa pins on the lapel of her uniform; the kind whose nose lit up when you pulled on the cord hanging below.

Lonely children and Christmas go together so well for a reason: their need for the beauty of the season keeps its true spirit alive. It’s not really about expensive gifts or even the obligatory holiday parties. It’s about finding a moment in the year when people think just a little bit harder about doing something for those around them, about finding in themselves the will to be kind.

It’s no wonder that one of my favorite Christmas movies is Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise). This is the story of an odd and solitary little girl named Amy (Ann Carter) who finds her only friend in a person that no one else seems able to see.

The movie pretends to be a sequel to Lewton’s Cat People (1942). That movie’s heroine, Irena (Simone Simon) died in its final scene. Whether or not she actually changed into a panther when aroused was never entirely clear. But now her widower has remarried, moved to Connecticut and had a daughter: Amy.

Sad and lonely, Amy prays for a friend to share her days. Out of her deep need to be loved and through the force of her own will, Amy changes her own reality. She calls forth — from either the grave or her own psychosis — a friend in the form of Irena, the cat woman of the first movie. And when this friend appears, she explains that she’s come from a place far away, “a place of great darkness and deep peace.”

Dad’s none too thrilled to learn that Amy claims her special friend to be the wife he’d lost some years earlier. And we’re never quite clear if Irena really has returned from the grave or if Amy has simply lost all touch with reality. But it doesn’t matter. The tenderness of this moment on Christmas Eve — of gifts exchanged with love between a fairy princess and a lonely little girl — explains the promise and the glory of the Christmas season. It’s pure magic, just as Christmas should be.

All this obsession with the season may sound like a set-up for horrible disappointment when it’s over and the people on the street revert to their previous day-to-day manners. Sure I’m sad when the season is over and we move from the magic of candles and twinkle lights to the bleak cold of winter days. But my sadness isn’t profound.

To paraphrase Mr. Nietzsche: a person can’t look into the abyss without changing forever his knowledge that behind the world’s veneer of bright rationality lies chaos.

In much the same way, I can’t look into Christmas — its lights, its beauty, its promise of a kinder world of good intentions — without knowing that people can be better when they just put their minds to it. If will or tradition, peer pressure or the cheap glitz of tinsel and commercialism can coerce people to behave more like human beings for a couple of months out of the year, then life just doesn’t seem so grim over the other 10. Like little Amy — crazy as she may be — I look for my own redemption in those gifts exchanged among friends with love.

* The covers of Comic Cavalcade No. 9 (Winter, 1945) and Action Comics No. 92 (February, 1946) come courtesy of Golden Age Comics.