The World's Best Fruitcake, a Memoir
In memory of my mother, Margaret Mary Zubek Anderson (1920-2009)
The Secret of the Fruitcake
As a small child, I naturally believed my mother's cooking was the best, especially at Christmastime.
Mother was a first generation American of Czechoslovakian heritage. My maternal grandparents married around the early 1900s and had nine surviving children, Mother being one of them.
How Mother actually learned to make fruitcake is a mystery, but I suspect it was a Betty Crocker recipe or one from The Farm Cookbook. The secret of her fruitcake wasn't the ingredients, though--it was my mother's energy.
For most recipes, a full month of ripening is a necessity. You can always store it longer than a recipe requires, but don’t shorten the aging time.— Allrecipes Staff
My mother began making the fruitcake in October to be sufficiently aged for the upcoming Christmas.
The Pioneer Spirit
To understand my mother's energy, the true secret behind her fruitcake, I can only relate a few of her life experiences to paint a clear picture of her stick-to-it-tiveness and pioneer spirit.
Whenever my mother found me being difficult, she'd always remind me that she labored five days in birthing me. I, of course, don't remember any details, but, perhaps, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to live in a post-depression, post-war world. I must have finally made up my mind, however, because our relatively young nation was experiencing a resurgence, and the economy was growing.
I know the labor of childbirth can be very painful for women (my daughters' births were exceptions, without epidurals), as it must have been for my mother, yet she endured and continued to run her beer tavern business with her sisters. My elder siblings were also responsibilities at the time. I can only imagine what life's demands might have been, so this is one testament of my mother's will power.
Running the Beer Tavern
My mother was in partnership with my aunt Helen, who was a little older than my mother. My aunts Emele (ee MEEL) and Alice also helped run the business. All of the sisters played at least one instrument, and they played their live music, mainly country-western and polkas, on Friday and Saturday nights to the delight of local townspeople.
Probably the least favorite responsibility for my mother was handling a customer who became drunk. There was no bouncer--my mother was it. Once in eighth grade, my General Business teacher jokingly remarked to me, "They've got these big women there who throw out the drunks." I said nothing.
The worst thing that happened to Mother while waiting on tables in the bar was breaking a glass and accidently cutting her wrist. She had to have surgery to reconnect tendons in her left hand. She was never able to play her piano-accordion basses the same after that and her hand was visibly cramped; nevertheless, she continued playing the instrument out of her passion for it.
Cold winters made the moderate drinking of alcohol attractive, so the beer tavern was successfully profitable for 25 years until my mother and aunt sold the business.
Rabbit for Supper
Mother had to close the tavern most nights, so she often never got home until 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. Once, after closing, she headed toward her car, but before she reached the vehicle, she spotted a rabbit about twenty feet away. She instinctively picked up a rock that happened to be near her feet and threw it--she hit that rabbit square and brought it home to prepare for supper!
Harvesting and Canning
In addition to running the tavern and housekeeping, the harvest season busied my mother. With steam rising from large kettles on the electric stove, my mother canned pears, tomatoes, and pickles. I had the honor of washing out all the quart bottles. "Your hands are so nice and small," my mother would say. The tone of pride in her voice made me feel special, so I had no qualms about the work.
Other things stored for winter on the basement shelves were slippery jacks (a sweet, spicy pepper), sauerkraut, and preserves--strawberry, raspberry, crab apple jelly, and grape jelly. Dill pickles were often started in a crock, then later transferred to quart bottles for easy access.
Apart from those I have mentioned, my mother kept clean kitchen and dining room floors. She swept and mopped them daily. The family laundry was done in a wringer washing machine and hung by hand on the clothesline for many years. In the wintertime before the family moved into their newly built home, clothes had to be hung in the attic where heat from the chimney allowed the clothes to dry.
When she baked bread, my mother would often make twelve loaves at a time. A few loaves would always be kept in the kitchen area for daily use, while the rest were stored in the freezer.
Such was my mother--independently business-minded, yet musical, and an inspiration to her children to "get things done." This was the energy that went into her fruitcakes.
© 2017 Marie Flint