Saturday, December 24, 2011

Meat Pies and Fruitcake

Meat Pies

Much of the holidays are about tradition--about maintaining a continuity with the past in an ever-changing world.  Maybe it's aways having the same ornaments on the tree, or singing carols, or even saying "bah, humbug" and going to a movie.

And sometimes traditions can be new--you do something one year, and it somehow feels right, so you do it again the next year, and by the third year it's a tradition.  For us--that's meat pies, sherry, and watching "Hogfather."  Hogfather is a book/movie--and being as the book is 350 pages long and the movie 2 1/2 hours and both are pretty convoluted I won't even try to summarize.  But the key point is that the Hogfather (Santa Clause) isn't able to make his rounds, and people are no longer believing in him.  So Death steps in, dons a red suit and fake beard, and tries to take his place, because it's vitally important that belief in the Hogfather is kept alive.

Which begs the question of Why?  Why do we want children to believe in Santa Clause?  According to Death (the ultimate observer of life) it is the belief in things that don't exist that make us human.  And you have to start off with the little lies (Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny), so that you can believe in the big lies like Truth, or Mercy.

"Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sift it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy."   And yet we have to believe these exist.

So, in the world of the Hogfather, the little kids leave out meat pies and sherry (and turnips for his pig) and in late December we make meat pies and pour sherry and are reminded why we have to believe.


A much older tradition for me is fruitcake.  People are mean about fruitcake--it's given as a joke, sneered at, regifted.  Me--I like fruitcake.  I even like store-bought fruitcake although I rarely eat it because I make my own (and everyone knows it so I don't ever get one for a joke).

This started about the time I was 12 or 13 and in my Dickensian phase--and The Christmas Carol is full of words like "redolent" and "heady" when describing fruitcake--when that luxurious richness of fruits and nuts and brandy epitomized all that was Christmas.

And then there was Truman Capotes "A Christmas Memory"--with a young boy and his elderly cousin trudging from door to door buying raisins and oranges and whisky.

And so, using a recipe clipped from the Tampa Tribune (they started running that recipe annually sometime around 1950--wonder if they still do?) I made fruitcake.  And have made it every year since (gak!  45 years now?)  It's a white fruitcake, with commercial candied fruit.  I have since found recipes that I like better, with dried fruit and spices--but I still have to make that white fruitcake, or it just won't be Christmas.  It's made in early December, then wrapped in run-soaked muslin to age.

So I've always made it.  When I was in college and went to visit an aunt for Thanksgiving I confused her by saying I had to borrow her kitchen to make fruitcake.  When Bob and I were first married and the purchase of candied fruit and a dozen eggs and a bottle of brandy used up most of a week's food allowance--I've made it.  When we were moving one year shortly after Thanksgiving and were involved with packing and boxing, the fruitcake got made and the cloth-wrapped loaves carefully packed and transferred.

  Some people like it--mostly my family because it's been family tradition for 45 years.  Bless my sister-in-law--she's been family for "only" a dozen years, but admits that she's always liked fruitcake.  Others--not so much.  My other sister-in-law and my neice have let me know that "I don't have to give them any of that stuff."   My father-in-law adored it--he would greet us at the car when we came home for Christmas with "where's my fruitcake?" and proceed to cut a big rich slab and eat it in three bites while standing over the sink.   I had his fruitcake ready the December that we lost him, hoping that he could come off of the ventilator to enjoy it.  And thus began a new tradition--like setting a place for Elijah, the first bite of fruitcake each year is a toast to him.

So be it meat pies, fruitcakes, mistletoe, or hanging a pickle on the Christmas tree, enjoy your traditions.  And have a Merry Christmas!

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