The Fruitcake’s Revenge

Got Fruitcake?

Johnny Carson said it, and I believed it.  Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, he began the Christmas season by reminding us, “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.” 

I knew his little joke wasn’t factual. Every year multitudes of fruitcakes marched like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs.  How essentially good ingredients – fruit and cake – could be combined into a “treat” that was both gummy and dry was beyond me. But the fruitcake people had managed to do it. Even though I preferred not to waste my holiday calories on something that appeared to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, people kept pressing fruitcake on me.  I wished there were only one. It would have been easier to escape the ghastly conconction. Continue reading

Sweet Abundance

Cooler weather and occasional showers have mitigated the drought in parts of Texas, and summer’s spectacular wildfires have ended. Still, dssiccated pastures, disappearing herds, abandoned lakes and empty stock ponds make clear the continuing need for rain.

Hidden behind these more obvious signs of drought lie other consequences, equally troublesome if more personal.  Enjoying breakfast in a Hill Country kitchen last weekend, I heard a tiny sigh as I split a biscuit and reached for the glass dish holding my friend’s homemade preserves.  “That’s my last jar of peach, and close to my last jar of fig,” she said. “It’s only December,” I said. “Don’t you usually have enough to last ’til summer?”

Yes, she allowed, she usually did. But this year drought put an end to her gardens and orchards. With so little rain, the fig trees barely produced. Peaches were available from irrigated orchards, but they were expensive. Pears were the size of walnuts, and the walnuts didn’t make. Even the dewberries weren’t good, setting so little fruit she left it for hungry birds and animals. The sweet, succulent blackberries that overflowed her baskets in the past withered and died, offering up only a cup or two of tart, nearly tasteless berries. Without good berries an abundance of pies, cobblers and sauces disappeared, not to mention the brandied blackberries that always had been a holiday treat. Continue reading

Margarine, Moonshine and Light

Butter was for Sundays, for hot yeast rolls filling the house with their loamy fragrance and for Sunday mashed potatoes.  Sometimes butter was for cinnamon toast, crusty with sugar and heavy with the scent of spice. Now and then, butter was for oyster stew or for light, crumbling cookies that vanished in a day. But for weekday toast and sandwiches, for slices of bread on the supper table and waffles adrift in syrupy seas, we made do with margarine.

We would have preferred living an all-butter life, but cost was a factor and we had no cows.  The churn had been idle for years, and the butter paddle that hangs in my kitchen already had become a curiosity.  Margarine was less expensive and more convenient, even though it came in a bag rather than a block, was white rather than yellow and like butter required some effort to be made ready for the table.

I loved making that effort. I sat on a tiny, three-legged stool at my child’s table, kneading the margarine with soothing, familiar motions: scoot the colored “yolk” into one corner, trap it against the plastic, press it down with the flat of a thumb to avoid making holes in the bag, break the yolk.  Begin to knead as though coaxing bread alive beneath my hands: roll, turn, press the ribbons of color through the slick, white fat.

Turn, and knead, turn, and knead. Roll the bag itself like a rolling pin, make a fist, push again against the heavy plastic until the color becomes smooth and even, no longer striated with ribbons of orange like the rich, heavy yolk of yard chickens’ eggs but lovely and light – the color of butter. Continue reading

Julia Child and the Jeweled Elephant


Never mind the whining and complaining from foodies who believe Julia Child’s legacy “deserves more than being tied to a Nora Ephron-penned (romantic comedy) about a lowly cubicle worker who blogs and struggles and cries and gets a book deal”.  As the familiar voice trilled its way into my consciousness and pulled me into the living room I experienced a fleeting, absurd hope that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead like one of her famous souffles.  Unfortunately, it was only the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming if potentially overdone tale of a remarkable woman and one equally remarkable devotee.

Watching the exquisite mimetic art of Meryl Streep, I was captivated in an instant.  The  story of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who set herself the task of  preparing all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is intriguing, astonishing and revolting in turn.  (The things done to lobster in the name of cuisine can be distressing.)  Continue reading