Saturday, December 10, 2011


The holidays shouldn't have to be a consumerist nightmare of frenzied shopping and canned Burl Ives songs. Once upon a time, before the Christian Church got hold of it, this season was the Feast of Midwinter, a time to gather together in the darkest, coldest time of the year and share food, wine, and camaraderie.

This can still be achieved without a huge expenditure of cash, especially if you like to bake (like moi) or cook. Instead of spending a lot of money buying people more stuff, consider giving your loved ones something, small, personal, and tasty from your kitchen.

This year, I loaned my venerable fruitcake recipe to my pal, Christina Waters. It's her first fruitcake, and you can read all about her progress over on her blog. I haven't made this recipe in awhile, but back when I was an impoverished college student, I used to bake it for my dad every Christmas.

Even after 40+ years in California, Daddy never got the concept of fresh fruit. The son of Danish immigrants who grew up in the chilly Midwest, his idea of fruit was the dried variety—raisins, dates and prunes. He used to rave about a fruitcake jam-packed with all of the above that his eldest sister, Chris, used to bake for the holidays. My mom, who taught me everything I know about baking, did not do fruitcake, so once when Daddy and I were visiting my Aunt Chris at her retirement home at Leisure World, I asked for her fruitcake recipe.

I was expecting her to produce some cherished, hand-scrawled Jensen family heirloom, possibly written in Danish. Instead, she handed me an anonymous printed recipe obviously clipped out of some magazine. I don't know what became of the fabled recipe of yore that my dad remembered, but this was the one Chris said she'd been baking for years, so that was good enough for me.

I made it pretty regularly after that, baking it in a round tube pan the day after Thanksgiving, wrapping it in a cotton dishtowel inside a Tupperware container, and liberally dosing it with alcohol (Aunt Chris insisted on Manischewitz Blackberry Wine) no less than once a week until Christmas.

Even after I moved away permanently to Santa Cruz, I would divide the recipe into smaller loaves and send one down to my dad in Hermosa Beach, and another one to my brother, Mike (nobody else in the household would eat it). This was not doorstop fruitcake, either; it was rich and gooey and luscious!

Daddy and Aunt Chris are both gone now, but just thinking about fruitcake brings them both back to me. Of course, Christina has put her own stamp on the recipe, and it will be interesting to see how it comes out. Stay tuned!

Btw, my Aunt Chris had a fairly wild life. That's her looking very demure up top, Anna Augusta Kirstine Jensen at about age 18 or 19, ca. 1920. This is also her riding a motorcycle in Sioux City, Iowa, at about the same, when she hung out with the boys—most of them police officers—in the local motorcycle club.

Eventually, she married one of them, Tom Brown, and their move to California in the early 1940s launched the clan exodus that resulted in the next generation of Jensens (like my brothers and me) being born here on the Left Coast.

Your aging relatives have surprising stories too, I bet. Why don't you ask them to share some memories at your holiday gatherings? You'll give them an enormous gift of pleasure, and it won't cost you a dime.

(Top: illustration of Mrs. Cratchit and the Christmas Pudding, by Arthur Rackham, from a 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol, as seen online at Project Gutenberg.)

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