By Jeff Carter
“So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.” Matthew 22:11
Christmas isn’t complete without traditions.
Some can be relatively new innovations. In my family, sister number two purchases a turkey that’s prepared by sister number one. Potatoes mashed with a pound of butter are a contribution from sister number three.
Yet when I returned to Ontario from five years in Alberta, a couple things were missing. The Christmas pudding was absent, perhaps a good thing, remembering my personal over-indulgence one year as a young lad. So was the fruit cake. I have endeavoured to bring back both and have had more luck with the cake though resistance to this family tradition that has been with the Carter family for a century, if not longer, is sometimes formidable
Only sister number two has expressed an affection for it in no uncertain terms. The rest are merely lukewarm or worse, place Christmas cake in the same category as doorstoppers.
The process of making the cake begins sometime around the end of October with an investment in ingredients, various dried and candied fruits, sugar, eggs, butter, flour, spices, along with a small bottle of rum, some of which actually ends up in the cake.
This year’s pound of butter was acquired from an Amish family. Its fragrance, flavour and cooking quality were exceptional, recalling what would have been available a century ago.
Preparation begins with washing the fruit and then setting it out to dry, adding the rum to the fruit mixture, and leaving it sit overnight. Lining the baking pans with parchment paper and blending the ingredients is a first-thing-in-the-morning task. It takes roughly five hours to bake at a low temperature.
The final touch is the addition of more rum to the tops of the resulting three or four cakes. Then they’re wrapped securely and aged.
It was my late mother who passed down her handwritten recipe to us. We still have it here in Dresden, and several photocopies as well, still legible despite the inevitable stains that have accumulated over past 30-odd years.
It was not my mother’s recipe, however, but Grandma Carter’s.
My mother and grandmother had an uneasy relationship. As a young lad on our Oxford County farm, I never heard the two speak, communication being made through my father.
The only thing to top two women living under the same roof with the same man, is when both are women of power. Grandma Carter, who lived into her 90s and had been widowed relatively early in life, maintained ownership of the farm until her death. My mother, for her part, didn’t provide her mother-in-law with the respect she was due, something she told over the last few months of her life with an air of regret.
Yet, if there was unease in their relationship, there was also respect.
My mother was a product of Ontario’s 1930s social services system. It was only when she arrived to the Carter farm that she learned how to properly prepare a meal and preserve the harvest, skills, no doubt, that were taught by the elder woman.
She also embraced her role as a “farm wife” – her words – learned to keep a garden, help around the farm, maintain the household with the “egg money” and celebrate Christmas Day with flair.
I’ve grown up with fruit cake at Christmas but the actual recipe was originally intended for weddings which, if you think about it, is well suited to the December celebration and represents, too, an enduring relationship between two women. ◊