I unwrapped the fruitcake today. I had found it at the back of Mom’s refrigerator as my sisters and I cleaned out her house for the new owners. Mom’s experience had been swift and surreal: Diagnosis end of January; passing mid-June. Now an equally surreal discovery: Here was one of her annual holiday fruitcakes — probably made last December — wrapped in foil and sealed in a plastic bag, tucked away like the hidden treasure it all of a sudden had become.
I was so startled to find it that I all I could do was put it into the bag with the other stuff I was taking to my house: A jar of Kretschmer Wheat Germ, Laasco creamed pickled herring, another jar of horseradish, a few other things. All of this so very Mom. All of it more reminders that she was gone.
That was last August. The fruitcake has been in the back of my refrigerator until this afternoon. Maybe it was the rain, maybe it’s because it’s December now, or maybe I just knew that I had procrastinated long enough. If I was going to serve it to the family on Christmas night — as I had planned — then I needed to see exactly what was there.
Unwrapping the last fruitcake
I unzipped the plastic bag and pulled out the foil-wrapped loaf. It was heavy. The foil wrapping was slightly crinkled, as if the fruitcake had already been unwrapped and then rewrapped. One sniff told me that it had: There was the distinct aroma of brandy. That also was so very Mom. She was probably the only one in the family who was enthusiastic about fruitcake, and she knew how to get the most from it — with diligence and care. Not unlike the way she raised the three of us.
So I unwrapped the foil, some of which stuck to the dried cherries on top that were sticky and not as moist as the cake itself. The cake was in very good shape; it’s full of dried fruit and nuts, and very moist and tender to the touch. I really didn’t need to, but I went ahead and used a toothpick to prick more holes in the top. I brushed it gently with a little Cognac, then wrapped it in plastic and a big new piece of foil. Back into “her” plastic bag it went. And back into the recesses of my refrigerator for another few weeks.
I’ve spent most of my life as a food journalist and editor. All of us in this business write frequently about the connection between food, family, tradition and memory, particularly during the holidays. But nothing I’ve written about has affected me as much as the discovery of The Last Fruitcake. And on December 25, if I can bring myself to cut into it, I know that I will savor every bite.
Mom would have wanted me to.
Top photo: Mom, Ina Lieb, celebrating her 90th birthday. Credit: Barbara Fairchild