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The Zen of Fruitcake

Between now and Dec 20th, anyone who makes a donation of $3 or more will be entered in a drawing for a fruitcake handcrafted by Earl Blumenauer, plus a certificate of authenticity and signed copy of Earl's essay "The Zen of Fruitcake!"

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The Zen of Fruitcake

by Earl Blumenauer

For the last quarter century, I have made fruitcake, now my most enduring holiday ritual. It started on a chance glance at a New York Times fruitcake recipe that evoked memories of my childhood. Like most people, I didn’t care for the dark, thick, nutty concrete-textured fruitcake, but I had an uncle from Texas who distributed a canned fruitcake that was of the light, cakey variety. It was moist, not too dense, and had no nuts. Every Christmas, I looked forward to the container or two that he would send.

Twenty years later, spying a recipe that approximated what I remembered from my youth, I made cakes over a long Thanksgiving weekend retreat to the Oregon coast. Not only did I like the result, but the baking itself was strangely satisfying. I looked forward to it the next year when I made a dozen cakes instead of two, giving extras to friends.

Over the years, making fruitcake has become very important to me. I’m really not much of a cook and my career is such that I rarely have any free time anyway. Much of what I’m involved with is simply words….words I read, hear, speak, write, and interpret. I spend my time in persuasion, developing ideas, and sharing them with others. It is important work and I have no regrets, but at the end of the day, I really don’t make anything. Most people actually make something or deliver a product or service. They are carpenters, nurses, farmers, or factory workers. They create something tangible to eat, wear, lift, store, or use. Others make the world better in concrete ways. Kids blossom in front of their teacher’s eyes as a result of their efforts. My fruitcake at least was something real.

My holiday fruitcake ritual has grown exponentially; some close to me would say it has metastasized. My third Thanksgiving weekend, experimenting with larger batches of smaller cakes (you’ve seen the little “mini” loaf aluminum pans in the grocery store), I made two dozen. In subsequent years it was three dozen, then four dozen, and more. It was only a matter of time until I exceeded 100 individually prepared, wrapped, and ultimately delivered cakes. This year’s production line was well over 200.

Since significant time is required for quality control, producing many more is not within my capacity unless I begin during the Labor Day weekend. Part of what I care about is being able to do it all myself, although as the numbers increase, I have subcontracted out some of the wrapping.

It’s not just the actual baking, it’s the entire process. My annual ritual has developed into a multiday production. Ingredient shopping for 200-plus fruitcakes is a production in and of itself: finding the baking tins, cheesecloth, candied fruit, industrial-sized cartons of raisins and currants, and appropriate wrapping. I start in early November to make sure I have all the elements in order. Nobody has everything, so there are multiple stops. Sometimes for critical ingredients, I have to go to two or three different stores. Every year I vow to deal with wholesale suppliers for simplicity and volume, and every year I don’t. In part, it is because of lack of organization, but also because it would detract from the ritual. I like to see who else is digging into the bin of citron for their own fruitcakes. I like the exchanges in the aisles, the knowing smile from the clerks, the occasional interactions with other fruitcake aficionados.

After six or eight hours of baking, as I mix, sort, sift, ladle, and bake, I discover an interesting physiological connection, like being in the middle of a long run or a hike on a remote trail. I get lost in the rhythm, my mind is released to think great thoughts or reflect on the mundane. A kaleidoscope of images pops up as I build my own momentum. Whether hiking, running, or baking, I am drawn by muscle memory and instinct. I find I don’t have to check the recipe to think about how many egg yolks to separate, where they go, or what comes next. The process has become part of my subconscious and physiology.

There is an amazing sense of satisfaction as I complete each batch. Like each mile or vista on the trail, each dozen cakes gives me the same sense of accomplishment.

The Zen of the Fruitcake includes far more than the “high” I get from baking. Sharing the fruitcake experience from the beginning has generated a torrent of fruitcake cards, cartoons, and news accounts from friends (and others) over the years. There is a distinct “fruitcake lore.” Fruitcake lovers (and there are some) form a secret society. It’s like you know the code, the handshake, the oath. You don’t need to exchange recipes and war stories to have a sense of kinship.

Then there is the delivery. Part of what I do every year is to share my prized efforts with others. Some of these are transcontinental friends that require taking cakes with me to Washington DC on a plane, a mission that has become more difficult in light of heightened security. Fruitcakes are often regarded as nothing if not menacing. Still others are shipped by mail.

Then there are the fruitcakes that I can deliver in person in hundreds of “drive-by cakings” over the years. The personal contact gives me the opportunity to exchange Christmas greetings. Time permitting, there’s a cup of cider. Other times, it’s a few minutes on the porch or in the entryway as I interrupt somebody’s holiday festivities. But in every case, it is a connection I look forward to, a salute to an earlier era.

Connection, creation, and fellowship. From Thanksgiving to New Year, this simple ritual, however idiosyncratic, has become an expression of what makes the holidays and the New Year special for me.

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