Most of us have a favorite literary classic we think about at Christmas. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” comes to mind, well-loved for its colorful characters and uplifting tale that transforms Ebenezer Scrooge from a dismal miser to a generous and life-loving human being. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is another popular holiday story that tells how communities pull together in times of stress. But for me, Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” has the strongest appeal because it is exquisitely told from the point of view of the 7-year-old Capote who had a unique and very touching relationship with his best friend, Sook, a child-like elderly female cousin living in rural Alabama. Capote had been dumped there in 1931 to live with a family of distant relatives after his parents divorced and went their separate ways. This quiet story explores the special relationship between Sook and Truman, and its most dramatic moment comes with their annual baking spree that yielded about 30 Christmas fruitcakes, one of the best food scenes in contemporary literature.
“It’s fruitcake weather,” Sook would say on a brisk late November day, and she and young Capote would set out for a neighbor’s pecan grove, pushing along a rickety baby buggy that served as their wagon. “It is made of wicker, rather unraveled,” Capote recalled, “and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs.” They approached the field after harvest and searched the ground for windfall pecans until the buggy was full, then headed home to plan their shopping expeditions for the rest of the needed ingredients. “Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and on, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings.”
The baking gets off to a roaring start when the black stove is stoked with coal and firewood. Then, “eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.” After four days of baking, 30 cakes would take up residence on available window sills and shelves.
These Christmas gifts were not necessarily meant for friends and neighbors, but for people who had struck Sook and Truman’s fancy. President Roosevelt always got one, and so did the local bus driver who waved to them every day, the knife grinder who came through town twice a year and a couple from California who spent a pleasant hour chatting with them on the porch when their car broke down. Sook kept a scrapbook filled with thank-you notes from the White House and from others who appreciated her gifts.
Authors who make us crave literary dishes
Written by the adult Capote and recalling the best moments of his childhood, the story is yet another example of how food ignites memory, leading to the whole new genre of food memoirs. Until recently, Proust’s famous petite madeleine was the example everyone thought of to show how food sparks recollections of bygone days. But these days we can easily point to dozens of writers who use food to capture not only memories of childhood, but of other occasions — birthdays, weddings, divorces and recoveries. Food shows up at every critical moment in our lives and becomes a conduit for bringing back and redefining those moments.
Capote ends his story by telling us how Sook continued to bake her fruitcakes every year, well after he had grown up and moved to New York. Each December he would receive in the mail a package from her with a note telling him she was enclosing “the best of the batch.” And when the gifts tapered off, he knew that Sook was nearing the end of her life.
One of the impacts of this story on me is that I cannot think about fruitcakes without conjuring up that image of Sook and Truman pushing along their wobbly baby buggy in search of windfall pecans. Nor can I think about a Christmas goose without remembering the transformed Scrooge purchasing one for the Cratchit family. Even the simple image of cookies and milk has become an emblem of Santa Claus and his apparent endless appetite for sweets.
A fresh take to revive a tired classic
Fruitcakes are a holiday treat that has been much maligned. Comedian Johnny Carson famously said “there is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
It has been called a doorstop and referred to as a dangerous flying object when hurled. But, the fruitcake has a long and distinguished history, having shown up in most Western cultures, generally at Christmas. According to White House memoirists, President Roosevelt loved the cake so much that he always requested an iced version for his birthday celebrations as well as for Christmas.
As for my own reservations about this cake, I realize that it isn’t so much the entire cake that puts me off but only the presence of such neon-colored, overly sweet glazed fruits as maraschino cherries, pineapple and bright green bits I have never been able to identify. So one day I made a list of what I would enjoy in a fruitcake and went at it to come up with my own version. I like the idea of holiday-centered cakes, and here is the recipe I settled on:
Fruitcake Inspired by Truman Capote’s Cousin Sook
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped candied orange peel
½ cup chopped candied ginger
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup pecans that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1½ cups white sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon orange extract
1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
2. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add orange peel, ginger, raisins, pecans and walnuts and toss to coat.
3. In electric mixer beat sugars and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts.
4. Add dry ingredients and fold until just combined. The batter will resemble chocolate chip cookie dough.
5. Spoon batter into pan. Smooth the top. Bake until cake is golden and tester — I use a long, very thin wooden skewer — comes out clean. Start testing after 1½ hours. Cool cake on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan and cool completely.
NOTE: Use moist, not stale dried fruit. Hard fruit will bake up even harder and ruin the cake.
Photo: Christmas fruitcake inspired by Truman Capote. Credit: Barbara Haber