The Fruitcake that Brought me to Tears

The first day I worked in the Bakery Candy Kitchen at Harry & David, we were making the Traditional Fruitcakes. I wondered who on earth was still eating these things. We made thousands, in an assembly line, and it moved fast. I could barely keep up. I felt like Lucille Ball on the chocolate line, only there is no snitching of anything EVER on the Harry & David line.

We have windows upstairs and tourists come through to see us working. I realized how firmly entrenched my Marketing gene is when on day three at the bakery, doing ten hour days, being new to production work and sore in every single muscle of my body from standing and doing repetitive work – my back was simply lit up with pain – a tour group came through, and I instantly stood taller, smiled broadly and waved and went back to my work with a whistle and a tune in my head. I wanted those tourists to see happy workers doing our best to kick out gorgeous desserts for them. I am such a consumer.

Yesterday, we did the fruitcake pictured above – the Grand Fruitcake Confection. The mix is a sticky mess of pineapples, pecans and candied cherries with just enough cake batter to hold them all together when baked. On the line, we weigh each cake to make sure it is the perfect size, and then there are ladies that push the mixture into the pans to make sure that all the pecans are right-sided, nothing is sticking up, all the cherries are evenly distributed, and that it is pleasing to the eye.

At first, I was back to my original thought – “Who would eat this?” And then, one of the gals on the line told me that during the depression, fruit was so hard to come by that having pineapples and fruit at Christmas was a luxury. I started daydreaming about the Depression, and the grandmothers who lived through it.

I began thinking about how enduring this dessert is, even after all the Johnny Carson jokes about there being really only one in existence, that keeps getting re-gifted from year to year, about how it is the worst gift ever from older people to younger people, who use these as doorstops.

I started getting tears in my eyes thinking of an older generation seeing these as the absolute height of decadence – with rich pecans, and unheard of pineapple at Christmastime, and candied cherries to brighten the mood during a dark and cold time of year. I imagined scores of aging Americans remembering this as something that brought them a little bit of joy during the bleakest time in their own families history, and our countries darkest time.

I imagined the part of their heart that they share, and the part of their history, and a little bit of the desperation and heartache and want that they remember, and are grateful they survived, and how they may be wanting to share with us, the inheritors of so much plenty, the recipients of their strength and resolve – a little of this slice of sweet cake that brightened their otherwise pretty dismal childhood holiday. And I wanted to whisper to every survivor of the Depression and swear to them, as they are getting older, and we are losing them from our collective reach, that we will not forget them. That we understand why this strange, sweet confection has staunchly refused to go away.

People wonder why bakeries still make it. I think I finally understand why. Because somewhere inside all of us, there remains a salute to the aging population who saved everything, who worked hard for everything they ever got, and tried to teach us the value of a good work ethic. While we are kids, we may overlook them, but as we begin to get older too, we start to see how strong they are, and why they valued what they valued, what made them the way they were, the hardships they went through. And this sweet thing makes a little more sense.

I decided while I was on the line that I want to taste this, and I want to send one to my parents, who will bring it to the potluck at their church on Christmas, and some of the tiny, little, old women in their congregation will get misty-eyed with memories of yesteryear, and thank my parents for remembering.

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