Lillian Varnell made me fall in love with fruitcake. Actually, I fell in love with her fruitcake at about the same time I fell in love with her grandson. I often wonder if those two things are related.
The people of Malvern, Arkansas, knew her as a woman of deep faith, a keen wit, and great strength. Many in town called her “Aunt Lil,” but the luckiest of us called her Mammaw.
She consistently used one’s full nomenclature in her address. Mammaw was totally a first name-last name kind of woman. Jay took particular delight in her charming cadence and would often imitate her. His examples: “Jamie Samons. MMMMMMMM. That is delicious. Now, let me tell you something about Jay Samons.” “Wilbur Varnell loved his television and eating at the Shack.” “Jay Samons, it is good to see you.” She spoke with great enthusiasm and great love. One of her great paradoxes was that Mammaw loved almost everybody, yet I knew that to be loved by her was something very special.
Mammaw was the mistress of a true Southern kitchen: her black eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, and fried chicken knew no equal. Her pear preserves—tender slices of pear swimming in glistening syrup— still haunt my dreams. (Those preserves on a freshly-baked, buttered biscuit? Grab the smelling salts: I’m swooning.) And, at Christmas time, her care packages of Southern treats provided warm comfort to the two of us as we hunkered down through the New England winters. She sent candied pecans, peanut brittle, party mix, and, most anticipated of all: her fruitcake.
Mammaw’s fruitcake definitely was more “fruit” and less “cake.” Assertive chunks of dried dates, pineapples, and cherries snuggled tightly with opulent pecan halves in a traditional pound cake batter. Ample amounts of apricot brandy encouraged the fruits and nuts to play nicely together.
Shortly after we married, Mammaw shared with me her fruitcake recipe. She sent me two 4×6 index cards, on which she transcribed it from the 1946 edition of The Progressive Farmer Cookbook in her perfect penmanship. At first, I treated it rather cavalierly. In the hubristic haze of my twenties, I unabashedly mashed parts of Mammaw’s recipe with recipes from Martha Stewart and Rose Levy Beranbaum, seeking to develop my own signature fruitcake. The culinary cross-pollination proved utterly disastrous on more than one occasion. Even weeks of soaking those bitter cake-bricks in booze barely rendered them edible.
Luckily, I matured a bit and recognized that one shouldn’t mess too much with a wonderful thing. Since then, I have followed her now-smudged and batter-splattered hand-written directions almost to the letter (my only divergence is to pre-toast my store-bought Yankee pecans in an effort to approach the robustness of her Southern gems).
One of the most productive people I have ever known, she always said she wanted to walk to her grave. And on March 9, 1998 she did, lucid and active until her last days, doting on great-grandbabies and certainly debating the merits of the latest Winston Churchill biography or studying Old Testament scripture.
When she passed along her recipe to me, Mammaw not only shared her legacy, she also set a standard for cooking and for love that I will certainly never reach. My fruitcake, a feeble reflection of hers, is my pale attempt to pay her homage.
This song, my favorite Christmas/not-really-Christmas tune, off 1984’s Learning to Crawl, soundtracked my holiday baking this year. I love its combination of grit and strength and tenderness (Mammaw qualities, to be sure). “Outside under the purple sky/Diamonds in the snow sparkle.”
Wishing you all a magical moment of sparkle this year. Merry Christmas!