Saturday, November 25, 2006

Precision Cuts: Mom in the Kitchen/Writing Assignment #4

My sister Carol made this writing assignment for her, me, and Christy: Our next assignment is to focus on Mom and remember the special Christmas treats that would come out of the kitchen. Let’s try and name them, describe them, and talk about the ones we looked forward to, maybe what we remember of them being made….however you want to do it.
I'll pretend to speak for my mom. Let's see: I teach the second grade at Siver King Elementary with about twenty-three students, create meaningful learning experiences for them, including reading groups, art projects, caring for live animals like frogs, salamanders, fish, and snakes in the classroom, correct their work, orchestrate classroom Christmas gift exchanges, prepare kids to perform in the annual Christmas pageant, attend my own children's' Christmas programs, oversee the decorating of the Christmas tree in my classroom and at home, build a Valentine's Day post office, perform hall duty, lunchroom duty, playground duty, go to PTA meetings, pariticipate in the teachers' education association, later with the teachers' credit union, hold parent teacher conferences, do laundry for five, buy groceries for five, cook dinner for five, pack my husband's lunch every morning, fix his breakfast, type my son's high school research papers, clean the house, pay the bills, keep track of family finances, go to night school, summer school, do the family Christmas shopping, wrap and hide the children's gifts, host the unexpected guests my husband invites from the Zinc Plant or the Sunshine Inn, and when I get a four day weekend at Thanksgiving time or a three or four days off before Christmas, I know what I'll do: I'll make popcorn balls, spritz cookies, maybe some fudge, nuts and bolts, decorate cookies, make gingermen, and, above all, fruit cake.

I understate my mother's case.

My mother is unbelievably productive. Even today, in her mid-70's, she keeps a schedule of gardening, yard work, house cleaning, visits, club meetings, care for her grandchildren, and other things that wear me out just watching her when I come home to visit her.

To me, my mother's industriousness is best captured in her making and baking of fruit cake. If, when Dad made Tom and Jerry batter, he was a pig on ice, my mother is Peggy Fleming. If Dad was a bull in a china closet, Mom is a swan on a pond. Understand, my mother's kitchen is about the size of 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, with every inch of counter space taken by microwave, toaster, egg cooker, and containers so that she is in a constant shuffle between cutting boards, the kitchen table, and the stovetop to make room to work, pulling one appliance or bowl or pan out of the cupboards, washing and putting another away to make room for what she's using now. We stayed out of Dad's way in the kitchen because he was a train wreck. I stay out of Mom's way because she is Georgia O'Keefe, because watching her movement, sense of proportion, knowledge of her work space, and physical grace is like watching a seasoned artist at work.

Back to the fruit cake. Mom is a precision chopper. She can take a cup of walnuts, a jar of red and green candied fruit, raisins, if need be, and cut them into delicate, pieces, tinier than baby teeth, perfect for her vision of what the perfect fruit cake should look like to the eye and feel like in the mouth. I could always tell when we were given a fruit cake that was bought in a store, that Mom did not have high regard for the hunks of fruit inside the cake or the ones that smothered the top. She didn't like the way they looked and always thought they were indelicate to bite into.

So, when Mom made fruit cake, in spite of her fatigue from her job and duties at home, she quickly, but patiently, cut all the ingredients into microscopic pieces. I won't go so far as to say they were uniform pieces, but they were small enough that they were close to uniform. Had she asked me or my sisters to help with this, we would have exercised precision for about 56 seconds, lost our patience, and just started lopping candied fruit and maraschino cherries into hard candy-sized chunks and thrown them in a bowl. We would have been relieved of duty. Mom wanted these cakes just right.

Once baked, the fruit cakes were not ready to eat. Oh no! They had to be soaked. I loved this part. Mom soaked cheesecloth in brandy (Dad: Mary! Jeeezzus! Yer wasting good booze!) and wrapped the cheesecloth around the cooled fruit cakes. The fruitcakes then went to the basement and sat in their brandy quilt for I can't remember how long.

I loved the smell of the brandy. The thought of that brandy accenting the taste of the currants/raisins and candied fruit and nuts in the fruit cake stirred hunger in me, a longing for eating fruitcake once it had soaked enough. I especially liked the cakes that Mom had oversoaked a bit. When the brandy was strong and out of balance, when the fruit cake tasted more like liquor than a sweet desert, I really liked that.

No wonder I've always struggled with the bottle!

My longing for Mom's fruit cake has not diminished. Every year, Mom sends a box containing pumpkin bread, banana bread, popcorn balls, nuts and bolts, fudge, and other treats to our home here in Eugene. I grab the fruit cake. It gives me my only Grinch feeling at Christmas. I don't want to share it. Patrick likes it, too. He always asks me permission if he can have some. I hesitate. I listen to the good angel on one shoulder and the fallen angel on the other. The good angel prevails.

Why would I want to withhold the pleasure of Mom's precision cut fruit cake from anyone? Only a Grinch would hoard such sweetness.


Dubya said...

Mmmmmm . . . fruitcake.

Word Tosser said...

My Mom use to make fruitcake and also wrapped it in cheese cloth soaked in rum. She would have it so soaked it was dripping. And then each year she would cut off a 1/4 of it. It was round. And then resoak the cloth, and rewrap it. By the 4th year, you could have a soft glow by just eating a piece Mom's cake