Tuesday, December 7, 2010


This is the time of year when the fruitcake jokes begin to appear. Like Queen Victoria, we are not amused. The fruitcake I have made annually for fifty-one years is expensive and a lot of work -- something of a labor of love. I make it because I enjoy it, and I try to give it to other people who do. I have never required anybody to like fruitcake, or anything else I make. I didn't understand as a child, and I don't understand now, why the fact that someone doesn't like something should be felt as an affront.

"Oh, dear, don't let Nana hear you say that -- that's her homemade bread, you know." The issue wasn't the bread itself, which I had always eaten with as much enthusiasm as anyone, but the fact that it was soaked in gravy. I had explained clearly to whichever aunt was sitting beside me that I didn't like soggy bread. How that came to be heard as a negative statement about Nana's bread was beyond me; why she should care even if I didn't like her bread was more mysterious still.

Worse still was, "How can you not like these lovely lima beans that Uncle Leland worked so hard to grow?" What connection could there possibly be between Uncle Leland's decision to plant, weed, cultivate and encourage lima beans, and the fact that a young niece whom he saw maybe once a year and who certainly figured in his calculations not at all, didn't want to eat anybody's lima beans?

When I came to cook for other people, I still didn't understand the problem. "Oh, you don't like that? Lets see what else I can find for you," might represent my position. In any civilized setting, "Would you like some . . . ?" "No, thank you" covers it.

My willingness to put myself out for a picky eater took a hard hit during my first marriage. When he didn't like something he was often horrid about it (poking left-handedly at his dinner: "What is this made out of, rhinoceros hide?"). A polite refusal, or even a matter-of-fact suggestion or two about
how something might be improved, is fine with me. I object to rudeness, which includes unfunny jokes and unnecessary carrying on.

A disagreeable person I once worked for, upon my mentioning fruitcake- making, said with his trademark sneer, "But you know nobody likes fruitcake." If I had thought quickly enough I might have said something like, "None of the ignorant peasants you hang out with, maybe," but I hope I wouldn't have bothered. It probably would have been too subtle for him.

Some woman whose musings used to appear in the Boston Herald would devote one column each year to downing fruitcake -- a waste of energy equaled only by the fools who kept sending them to her on some such premise as "However much she hates fruitcake she's got to love mine." (This kind of thinking reminds me of Tschaikovsky's wife. He told her up front that the marriage was strictly for the sake of appearances and that he had no sexual interest in her. Beautiful and stupid, she apparently couldn't believe that any man could resist her. He did; with some untidy consequences that I don't remember.)

Before I give my fruitcake to anybody I do my best to determine whether or not they actually want it. One person who didn't explained, "There's something in it that I don't like." That would presumably be the candied fruit peel: bits of citrus peel permeated with sugar syrup, more or less sweet but with the astringent bite of the peel. I love those things. I'll eat them by the handful out of the box until my tongue hurts -- but I know that's perverse.

Citrus peel is probably the most common objection to fruitcake. Some people don't like dried fruit, or don't like or are allergic to nuts. My daughter-in-law is trying to be open-minded. She doesn't like dates, in which my fruitcake abounds, and prefers it without the brandy and sherry wrapping.

I don't have a problem with any of that. But the two people who said they liked fruitcake but never acknowledged the ones I sent them got dropped after a year or two, with a small muttered "phooey on them." The lady who said she liked it, accepted a slice, ate a bite and a half, and left the rest has been on my sour-memory list ever since. I seriously dislike wasting even a small amount of anything as money- and labor-intensive as fruitcake.

After my choir's Christmas orchestra rehearsal I get thanks and compliments on "that delicious fruitcake," which disappears in an augenblick or two. I'm glad the choir and instrumentalists like it; maybe I'll give them an extra one this year. I'm glad the people who don't like it can cast a cold eye on it and pass it by in favor of a cookie or two. De gustibus non disputandum est (that's ancient Roman for "there's no point in arguing about taste"). People who like fruitcake often like it a lot. Those who don't are invited to shut up and not eat it.