When I was little, Mama started baking for the holidays around the first of December. Having grown up during the Great Depression, she remained haunted by the things she’d wished for as a child. They became her two extravagances as an adult: food and shoes. Christmastime for our family meant plenty of cakes, pies, cookies and bedroom slippers.
There was a pecan tree in our back yard, which Mama claimed to be allergic to, so my brother and I were sent to collect the nuts for her holiday baking sprees. We would pick them up off the ground, put them in paper sacks and carry them back to the house. It was our job not only to pick up the pecans but to pick them out as well. We used a hammer for cracking and an ice pick to clean out the bitter tissue hidden within the fine, ribbed folds of the pecan meat.
Mama would bake a batch of cookies, give us two to eat, then put the rest in the freezer for later. The day our new chest-type freezer was delivered, Mama crammed everything in it but dust bunnies.
If there had been a contest, Mama’s fruitcake would have won. Both my brother and I loved it so. It was full of candied cherries and pineapple and the pecans we had labored so hard to pick out. No figs, dates or raisins. Nothing dark and gooey.
On fruitcake baking day, the warm fragrance that wafted out of our old kitchen, that lingered in each room long enough to make our stomachs growl, is a memory etched on my heart. It might have been the almond flavoring that added punch to the aroma, but I suspect it was Mama’s extra helping of soul.
The other day I came across an old cookbook that had belonged to my mother. There were pictures of pies and cakes filled in with a red Crayola, my favorite color. Gazing at the faded pages, worn now by many seasons of use, I cried a little bit.
I saw where Mama had scribbled down some of her favorite recipes, everything from sugar cookies to rum balls. I found the Coconut Pecan Pie she had concocted herself that had once won a cooking prize. The family favorite, Chicken Perlow was written on an index card and stuck in the middle of the book. And there, next to made-up recipes and ones borrowed from magazines or good friends, was her original white fruitcake recipe.
The smell and taste of that fruitcake snapped my synapses to attention like a rubber band. I had never baked a fruitcake, but my taste buds clambered for that long ago holiday delicacy. I decided to bake one for Babe and me. If it didn’t flop, I’d bake another for my brother.
Christmas music filled the house as I mixed the fruit, nuts and almond flavoring. By the time I packed it all in a tube pan, I was grinning all over myself. The sweet fragrance drifted through my own house this time, and it was almost like going back to the womb.
I followed Mama’s directions exactly, the one exception being the use of a pressure cooker. She steamed her cake for an hour, then baked it for another two. That method will remain untried by me, since Babe is convinced that I’d blow the house to kingdom come.
Three hours later, I took the cake out of the oven and placed it on a rack like the recipe instructed. It cooled for thirty minutes, but I could stand it no longer. Upside down it went on the cake plate, where I allowed it to rest for a bit.
The next time I checked, it looked like the heart of the cake had been pulled up and out, as though it were a watermelon. Candied fruit and nuts decorated the kitchen counter, the floor, and eventually the bottom of my shoes. It was a mess, but the cake smelled wonderful — just like Mama’s.
I could have cried, I could have repeated well-rehearsed expletives or pitched a fit, but I didn’t. I went instead to my bedroom where I keep a pair of old pink bedroom shoes under the bed. The heels are worn down and thin, the terry cloth has been smoothed over time. They had once belonged to Mama — a Christmas gift, no doubt. I loved having them under my bed, so that is where they lived.
I slid the shoes out, put them on my feet and flip-flopped my way back to the mess awaiting me in the kitchen.
What would Mama have done with this situation, I wondered. She’d have said, “Oh, for God’s sake! When life deals you crumbs, make crumb cake.”
I grabbed a handful of the sticky mess and rolled it into balls. Then I called my grandsons in from where they were digging up all my St. Augustine grass.
“Y’all come in here. You’re about to be the first person in the civilized world to sample a Gummy Bear Ball.”
They gobbled them up as if they were one of the starving children in China Mama used to tell me about when she was trying to get me to eat everything on my plate. When I asked how they liked the treat, they grinned and said, “Got milk?”
Mama would have liked that answer.
One Old Bathrobe . . . Priceless
My first thought
on this chilly anniversary
date is Mama, gone now
these 27 long years.
My eyes seek out her bathrobe
the one I keep
hanging on the bed post.
Crawling on my hands and knees
over rumpled quilts
and Downy fresh sheets I
take the robe from its resting place
and bury my face. Drawing deeply
I inhale the remaining
essence of her warmth,
breathe the last drops of
Under my bed with the
toes peeking out are Mama’s
I pull them out
and slip them on my feet.
For a very few seconds
I am part of her again, womb-like
and safe. With her robe
wrapped around my heart,
my day begins softly
with a memory.
Her life, her love
and her ability to bake
a damn good fruitcake!
Zola Sorrells Hall September 27, 1914 December 22, 1988