Schuh Column: Fruitcake Reprise
By Jim Schuh
Since my column on fruit cakes two weeks ago, several people have commented on it – all telling me they like the Christmastime treat.
Whenever I write about fruit cake or lutefisk, folks respond – mostly positively for fruit cake and negatively for lutefisk. I’m not sure I can write any more about lutefisk – over the years, I’ve done six columns about the concoction fancied by some Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. There’s not much more to say.
Just in case you’re not familiar with lutefisk, it’s usually dried cod that’s soaked in cold water for five or six days, and then for a couple more days, in a solution of water and lye. This makes the fish expand and turn gelatinous. I’ve described it as fish Jell-O. Since lye is a poison, lutefisk lovers soak it in cold water again for almost a week to leach out the lye. Then it’s ready for boiling. I’m not sure it’s ever ready for eating.
When a friend went to college, he rented upstairs quarters from a lady who prepared lutefisk every year. She’d leave the stuff in a wooden bucket to fester on the back stairs that provided entry to my friend’s apartment. He said he almost got sick from the odor every time he passed the bucket.
Just why anyone would eat lutefisk is mysterious. One theory is that the frequent displays of Northern Lights in the Nordic lands may cloud inhabitants’ judgments. But to my knowledge, there’s been no credible research to link lutefisk with Northern Lights, so we’re left guessing.
Back to fruit cake – the basic ones may have first appeared in ancient Rome, and in the Middle Ages bakers added such ingredients as honey, spices and preserved fruits. In America, fruit cakes became popular in the 16th century. Jokesters say the first ones are still being passed around. They’d agree with the recent CBS Sunday Morning report in which some termed fruit cake a “hockey puck” or a “doorstop.”
The day after my column on fruit cakes appeared in the Gazette, Amazon.com emailed me an ad trying to entice me to buy fruit cakes. It must have been retribution for my favorable comments on fruit cake. The ad spotlighted several and I found one common thread among them – the good ones contained booze — rum, brandy and bourbon.
First on the list was a Trappist Abbey Monastery Fruitcake from Lafayette, Oregon that sells for $38.64, or $12.88 a pound. The Trappists “say” that when the fruit cake is finished, they age it in 120-proof brandy. The Trappists also offer a one-pound version for $18.49.
The Assumption Abbey sells its two-pound fruit cake with rum in a traditional tin for $48.45, or $24.23 a pound. The abbey also is run by Trappists in Ava, Missouri, not far from Branson. My question: What is it with Trappists and fruit cake with booze? Their website says the two-pounder serves seven or eight people. That translates to sizeable slices of their round “delicacy.” My grandfather would say such a big slice would likely remain in your stomach for weeks – much like his sister-in-law’s dumplings, which he often called pool balls
The third offering was a fruit cake from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. It’s a “deluxe” version, weighing one-pound, 14-ounces. I bet it used to be two-ounces heavier, but “downsizing” is happening everywhere these days.
The bakery says its fruit cake is 27 percent pecans and describes the other ingredients as hand-picked “golden sweet pineapple and lush papaya from Costa Rica and ripe, red cherries from Oregon and Washington state, pure clover honey and plump golden raisins” and comes in a collector’s tin. It costs $34.95, or $18.64 a pound, but the website doesn’t say anything about mellowing its product in booze.
Then there’s Grandma’s Famous Fruit and Nut Holiday Fruitcake. The description lists the usual ingredients and says it takes “all afternoon” to make. It adds that grandma “mellows this cake with 100 proof bourbon, premium dark rum and 84 proof brandy.” The two-pound cake is $42.98, or $21.49 a pound. Grandma’s also offers a no-sugar-added version with one gram of natural sugar per four-ounce slice. It’s two-pounds and goes for $77.88, or $38.94 a pound. I couldn’t quite figure out who “grandma” is, but since the fruit cake comes from a large corporate bakery, I suspect she’s an advertising creation.
Some say that if you store your fruit cake covered with brandy-soaked linen, it will improve with age.
I’m quite sure nothing I’ve written will change anyone’s mind about fruit cake. So, I along with fruit cake aficionados will keep enjoying it, while those who detest it will simply hold to their beliefs.
In any event, my wish to both fruit cake lovers and haters is for a wonderful 2019! And if you’re interested, National Fruit Cake Day was December 27.
A postscript: With the passing of Walter John Chilsen on Christmas day comes a recollection of the time he tried to hire me. In 1966, he and a WSAU-TV sales rep stopped by WSPT and asked if I’d like to make a move from radio to TV. When I asked about salary, it was significantly below what I was earning. I pointed that out and I remember Chilsen saying that if I worked seven days a week, the salary might be similar. I politely declined and continued my radio career.