As a perpetual graduate student, I’ve had plenty of years to reflect, study and ponder new ideas and one area I often return to is the role of narratives in our lives. Narratives help define who we are and how we translate that to others. In times of tragedy, in times of joy and in the mundane day-to-day activities, our stories help root us to a particular time and place. These narrative traditions often come up with family and friends, when we gather to recount tales, share our hopes and envision our futures.
Family traditions around food is just one way that narrative gets told, even if no story accompanies the meal. A simple dish, rooted in tradition and history conveys a story and helps remind us of our origins. A dish of pasta, a bowl of chowder or fresh-baked bread are just examples of food that are imbued with memory and are so powerful that the initial aromas are enough to transport you to a certain time and place and hold memories of people who share in those traditions.
One such tradition in my family, that I fear is at risk of getting lost, is my Aunt’s fruit cake. I have no idea how she makes it and I’ve yet to receive the recipe, but I’ve found something similar and I’m determined not to let this tradition fade away. Fruit cake is controversial in that you either love it, or you hate it. Frankly, what’s not to love? It has dried fruit, lots of booze, a thick layer of icing and is so rich you can only eat a small slice. It’s the epitome of the holidays – excess, indulgence and richness. Growing up, I remember receiving fruit cakes almost every year and while my brother and I would let out a collective groan, when I was preparing for my wedding, this cake was the first thing that came to mind.
While I was married only 8 years ago, handing out wrapped pieces of fruit cake was definitely a dying tradition and yet, sharing that family tradition with my guests felt important and I was thrilled my Aunt spent months preparing, baking and wrapping slivers for our guests. Suddenly, it felt important to share those family traditions with others. Since then, I don’t recall ever having her fruit cake and I missed the dark, dense cake. Each year, I vow to make it and stumble upon a recipe way too late, forgetting how long the cake needs to steep and develop flavours.
But not this year. This year, I’m on it. This year, I’m getting started on keeping up the tradition and learning more about how my aunt got this recipe. It’s not your typical fruit cake, in fact, it’s a Guyanese fruit cake. My grandmother, born in then British Guyana, brought several Caribbean inspired recipes with her when she moved to Canada and I grew up on the tradition of Pepperpots, Goat Curry and Oxtail Stew. Guyanese fruit cake was no exception, except that was one thing our family never made, leaving it to my Aunt to supply us with our Christmas treat. I’m excited to let the story develop and upholding the cake tradition, sharing it with my own children and telling them the story of their Great-Aunt’s enduring kindness, how their Great-Grandmother bravely followed her heart and voyaged to Canada and how their own Mama was taught as a child that food has the power to convey love, compassion and community.
Here’s part one of Guyanese Fruit Cake that begins its initial process of hanging out in a boozy bath for the next couple months. I’m following this recipe, exactly. It comes from Canadian Living, that had a special on fruit cakes in the December 2009 issue and is called Rheanna’s Gramma’s Guide Cake.
Like preserves that need time for flavours to develop and mellow, this dried fruit and rum mixture will need until mid-November for the best possible flavour. I hope by that point, the next member of the family will be here to partake in the family tradition. I hope to teach him/her about their family and the roots that hold them in a community of love and adventure.