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Bonnie Brown: An Ode to the Christmas Fruitcake

So what’s Christmas without a fruitcake? Oh, you don’t like fruitcake, you say! In the small town of Claxton, Georgia more than 4 million pounds of fruitcakes are baked each year. Evidently, there are plenty of folks out there who do like fruitcake.

Some of you may recall the Fruitcake Lady, Marie Rudisill (she was an aunt to Truman Capote), who appeared several times on The Tonight Show. It’s not true, you know, that there’s only one fruitcake that is passed around from year to year which is what The Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson proclaimed. In 2002, the “Ask the Fruitcake Lady” became a regular part of The Tonight Show where she would answer questions about various baked desserts, and fruitcakes in particular. But I digress.

According to the Huffington Post article from 2015, the tradition of eating fruitcake around the holidays stemmed from the British tradition, being very popular in Victorian England. And for those of you who follow the monarchy, both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served fruitcakes at their weddings. Apparently, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry broke with tradition and didn’t serve fruitcake at their wedding.

Bonnie Brown’s mother-in-law and father-in-law, Valda and T. J. Brown. Photo provided.

My father-in-law and mother-in-law used to bake fruitcakes for the whole family. They started early, to ensure that the fruitcake had a chance to absorb all the flavors of the candied fruit and nuts as well as the homemade wine which was made from the scuppernong grapes grown in their back yard. It was a labor of love for them. And the fruitcakes were delicious. Mama Brown was a fabulous cook and turned an ordinary meal into something special every time.

They proudly served fruitcake to all their visitors and guests throughout the holidays. One neighbor was especially expressive in her praise of the good tasting cake. My mother-in-law was anxious because she was afraid the neighbor would discover that it was the home-made wine that gave it that “special” flavor. And she knew that this fine lady was a teetotaler and would be horrified by the revelation about the “secret” ingredient.

One year, I decided that I needed to try my hand at baking a fruitcake. I got the recipe from my in-laws and proceeded to duplicate their success at producing a delicious fruitcake. I asked my husband to pick up some bourbon (since I had no homemade wine) for me so I could complete the fruitcake-making process. A pint should be sufficient.

I carefully measured and mixed and carefully timed the baking of my first fruitcake. After it cooled, it was time to flavor it with the bourbon. Now, I’ve always subscribed to the belief that “if a little does good, a lot does better.” So I was very generous in my application of the bourbon. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not a bartender, right?

I let the fruitcake age for a while and checked to see if I had achieved fruitcake nirvana. I was distressed when the cake emerged from its wrapping dripping wet! I called to my husband and asked what he thought about putting it in the oven to bake out the booze. He looked alarmed and expressed concern that the thing might ignite with all the bourbon in it.

Apparently, you should just wrap the fruitcake in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth rather than liberally drenching it. (Note to self should I become ambitious and try again!)

For those of you who might want to try your hand at baking a fruitcake, here’s the recipe that my in-laws used. I should caution you that when you follow a recipe, it is often experience rather than ingredients that make the difference.

Fruitcake Recipe

5 Eggs
2 sticks of margarine
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 pound of candied cherries
1 pound of candied pineapple
4 cups pecans
2 teaspoons Vanilla
2 teaspoons Lemon flavoring

Cream margarine; add sugar; gradually add eggs
Add flavoring
Mix cherries and pineapple with nuts and part of the flour
Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt pan (or you can use loaf pans instead but you may need to adjust the cooking time)
Bake at 250 degrees for 2 ½ hours
Cool; wrap in cheesecloth soaked with bourbon, rum, sherry, or orange-flavored liqueur (or home-made wine) for at least a week.

The original recipe card for Valda Brown’s fruitcake. Photo provided.

May your fruitcake be moist and your holidays merry!

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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