By DOROTHEA BENTON FRANK
For Montclair Local
“Dot’s Desk” looks at life from the point-of-view of a bestselling author. Dorothea Benton Frank has written 18 books that have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Her first novel, “Sullivan’s Island,” published in 2000, debuted on the New York Times list at
number nine and went back to press over 25 times.
Frank was born and raised on Sullivans Island, SC. She divides her time between the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Montclair. Past board service includes The Montclair Art Museum, Whole Theater Company, The Drumthwacket Foundation, The NJ State Council on the Arts and The NJ Cultural Trust.
A little history.
The earliest recipes for fruitcake come from ancient Rome. They took pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins and muddled them into a barley mash. Sounds vile to me. By the Middle Ages, honey, spices and preserved fruits were tossed into the mix. Still doesn’t sound so great. Nonetheless, over time their popularity grew all across Europe. Recipes varied, depending on availability of ingredients and even religion had a thing or two to say. The Catholic Church forbade the use of butter because of fasting rules, but Pope Innocent VIII finally allowed its use in 1490, giving Saxony permission to use butter and milk in their Stollen. Depending on where you resided you might be eating Stollen, Christmas Pudding or Panettone or some variation on a theme. In the Bahamas, fruitcakes have always been a boozy affair, with rum as the popular spirit with which to drench the cake while it’s still hot. In Canada fruitcakes are un-iced and served at weddings. In India, fruitcake is available all year long. In the Philippines, their fruitcakes are layered sponge cakes filled with custard or whipped cream and garnished with mangoes, strawberries and pineapple. It seems like almost anywhere you go on the planet, you’re going to run into a fruitcake whether you like them or not.
And today they are vilified across the land. So, how deep does this hatred of fruit cake run in America? Pretty deep. And why? Because the kinds that are mass produced taste like drywall. We’ve got a couple of huge commercial fruit cake producing culprits — The Claxton Bakery from Claxton, Georgia and Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. The last time I had a slice of Claxton cake it was so dry I could not swallow it, but this could’ve been the fault of my hostess offering up a cake from another decade. Certain folks think fruitcake improves with age, but it needs to be eaten before its fossilized. The Collin Street Bakery fruitcake wasn’t so terrible, but I wouldn’t give it to my husband and expect him to run to Kay Jewelers and bring home something amazing for me. In any case, either one could have been greatly improved with a rum, brandy or whiskey soak.
But I digress. How deep is our disdain? Jokes abound about using them as footballs and doorstops. Since 1995, Manitou Springs, Colorado has hosted the Great Fruit Cake Toss on the first Saturday of January. If you hurry, you might be able to compete.
So, here’s the complete other side of the coin. I adore fruitcake, my mother’s in particular. But it’s not so much about the cake itself, it’s the process. As a child, beginning in October when pecans were ready to be picked, someone would bring my mother and stepfather a huge burlap sack of Schley paper shell pecans. They were long nuts and pretty easy for even young hands to crack and pick clean.
After supper (because in the south dinner is supper if you eat at home), we’d gather again around the kitchen table and crack pecans. Whole pecan halves went into one bowl, broken pieces into another. Where was my brother Billy stationed and what was that like? Would my sister Lynn come home for the holiday with her husband and children? Eventually, there were enough nuts to begin baking but the same conversation continued. How could my brother Ted stand living in Massachusetts where it was so cold? Was his wife making fruit cakes for him and for their two boys? Doubtful. And my brother Michael? Impetuous Mike, would-be rock star, traveling the world, singing in coffee houses — so talented, so handsome. Would he ever settle down? The conversation went on past my bedtime and into the night as we dreamed out loud.
I was so much younger then, maybe 7 or 8 years old, and to be a part of the adult discussion was thrilling. My much older siblings were missed by us all, but a fruitcake we would bake was destined to be enjoyed by each one no matter how far flung they were. It made us happy and gave us a sense of satisfaction to think about them opening a package and smelling their childhoods. We would add sands and rum balls to their packages. My siblings would know they were loved and remembered.
Soon, the air in my mother’s house was filled with sugar, cinnamon and butter. The finished cakes were the result of an effort that went on for weeks. The buildup to baking day is still the happiest memory I have of my whole childhood.
Mom and Dad have long gone to heaven and so have the twins, Billy and Teddy. And so, now I make the cakes. I’ve adjusted the recipe to use the flavors I like the most — pecans, pineapple, cherries, white raisins and citron. I’ll call my sister to debate the merits of adding currants and conclude they weren’t necessary for the dignity of our family fruitcake.
I make fruitcake to entice the curious to my kitchen and because the smell of them baking is so gorgeous, they come. I put on an old recording of Perry Como or Dean Martin crooning carols and we are ready for the holidays. The mood is right. When they are cooled, triple or quadruple dosed with rum or brandy and wrapped in cheesecloth and foil, I give them away, keeping one for us to enjoy. But mostly, I make my mother’s fruitcake simply to remember.