catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 21 :: 2006.11.17 — 2006.12.01


Feasting and fruitcake

And I know that it's not a party if it happens every night,
Pretending there's glamour and candelabra
When you're drinking by candlelight.

So sings Ben Gibbard as his alter ego, the lead singer of The Postal
Service. The song “This Place is a Prison” seems, as best as I can
tell, to be about the vapidity of lives given over to perpetual
partying. And, as odd as it may sound, this seems to me to be an
excellent metaphor for our culture’s relationship to dessert. Indeed,
for many, dessert does seem like a “party that happens every night,” if
not several times a day. And, as with anything licit or illicit, over
consumption will surely lead to boredom and apathy and the need to up
the ante. And so, phrases such as “double fudge” and “decadently
delicious” jostle against “supersize” and “upsize” in our crowded
gastronomic lexicon as the latest superlatives to describe the lengths
to which we go to give our palates new thrills.

“Wow, bummer of a
beginning to an article about desserts, dude,” some of you might be
thinking. Well, my intent is certainly not to dis dessert. If you come
to know me for even a short while, you will soon discover that, to the
contrary, I love me some dessert. I have favorite desserts: apple pie,
pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and any cobbler. My aunts make Thanksgiving a
true highpoint on the calendar. I can become rapturous about desserts.
I take pictures of dessert. I can discourse on the differing virtues of
apple pie served with vanilla ice cream or with cheese. I am sometimes
compelled to break social taboos and ask a host for coffee because,
well, certain desserts are a bit incomplete without it. I recently had
a conversation with a friend who is self-described “foodie” on the
nature of compotes. In short, my dessert credentials, if not as yet
impeccable, are clearly in order. And, yes, on the negative side of the
ledger, sometimes I eat too much dessert, either in a single sitting or
in a season of life. I can understand from the inside the allure to use
sugar to attempt to soothe a troubled soul.

No, it is because I
love desserts so much, because I want to appreciate them even more than
I currently do, that I write this article. Dessert, indeed, is a party,
like a mini rave which gets our taste buds jumping, like a night of
gaiety and sparkling wit. And like parties and feasting, they are truly
more special with rarity. This is one of those insights perhaps that is
so simple that it could go unsaid, but also it is so simple that it
gets easily forgotten. Moreover, this is not an insight which I came to
through logic, nor, indeed, one which I would have embraced as a child,
but it was in reflecting upon my childhood that it came to me.

was born in Sialkot, Pakistan. I did not grow up poor. My father was
the president of a college. As was the custom of the land, we had a
cook and gardeners and other help. We had three healthy meals a day
and, as was also the custom of the land, multiple cups of tea
throughout the day, with perhaps a cookie, or “biscuit” as they were
called there, in the afternoons. And yet Pakistan was, and still is, a
third world country and pre-packaged food was not in abundance and was
expensive. For example, it was rare that our family had soft drinks. We
got to have them really only on long train trips or on a visit to the
large city of Lahore to see my aunt’s family, where, if we were lucky,
we might also catch the latest James Bond flick. Roger Moore rules! And
we also got 7-ups if we were sick. I remember telling my mother of the
running tally I was keeping of just how many 7-ups my brother Adrian
had gotten to drink during one particular illness.

interesting contrast, when we came to Illinois on our
furloughs, while socio-economically we descended from the upper class
to the lower middle class and my mother found the need to economize, at
the same time we could drink more soft drinks (or “sodas” as we call
them in this part of the Midwest), eat more sweets, and eat more
chicken, which was the most expensive meat in Pakistan at the time but
which was the cheapest meat we could buy in America.

Now, let’s
be clear, I did not appreciate this incongruous disparity as a child.
No, at the boarding school for the children of missionaries which I
attended in Pakistan, on Saturday nights we would either watch a movie
or a television program that had been taped in America. And to us kids
the commercials for Big Macs or Pizza Hut or Apple Jacks were every bit
as enticing as anything the program itself might offer. As a kid, I
would have thought you were crazy if you would have told me that one
day I would appreciate growing up with less television, fewer snacks,
less dessert, and that, indeed, one day I would actually ponder how, if
I ever had kids, I might somehow program a sort of artificial scarcity
into their lives to let them experience the same benefits and blessings
I received from not getting anything anytime I wanted it. Indeed, I
might have put my hands on my hips, stuck out my lower lip, and said to
you, “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

In boarding school, our
snacking and dessert schedule was actually quite full and regular. We
got something sweet or salty with our afternoon tea. We got some manner
of dessert with dinner. And, at least in elementary school, just before
we went to bed there was the ceremonial unlocking of the “Feastings
Cupboard” by our houseparent from which we were allowed get one or two
“feastings” to munch as we sat around in our pajamas and listened to
our devotions. As an aside, the Feastings Cupboard was also one of my
first introductions to the inequities of geopolitics and food
distribution. The European missionary kids had all nice chocolates and
sweets. The kids whose parents worked in the Middle East or were in the
diplomatic corps had suitcases full of goodies. And then some of us had
mothers who lovingly baked dozens of cookies and made bags of savory,
fried vermicelli and bundled them off with us on early morning trains,
only to return home to suddenly silent households. What I would not
give for some of that vermicelli now. Often, though, returning from a
trip to America, my mother, too, would bring some snazzy American
snacks. On one such occasion in elementary school, the loot contained a
bag of Doritos. I can never now simply even smell original Doritos
without thinking of that bag nibbled slowly, chip by chip, over the
course of some weeks; I can never not think of my mother.

In the
culture at large in Pakistan, though, even in our relatively privileged
missionary circles, dessert did not happen every meal. Usually, the
dessert slot of the meal consisted of seasonal fresh fruit, either
mangoes, the fruit of heaven, in the summer months or a small cache
from the treasure horde of oranges we bought in the winter, or, for a
very short window in the autumn, apples from the mountains. And, oh the
smell these elicited when the vendors pried open the flimsy wooden
crates they came in and pushed back the straw.

Even “biscuits”
were not an absolute given with every teatime at your own home, though
if you went to someone else’s home, at any time of the day or night, in
accordance with the wonderful traditions of Pakistani hospitality, you
were always brought tea and something sweet or savory. Unless, of
course, it was close to a meal time, which then you would courteously,
yet persistently, be enjoined to share. But on Sundays, glorious
Sundays, after church, our family would go to tea at the Scottish
missionary ladies’ house, or the Dog House, as it was called for the
collection of stray, and sometimes rather mangy, dogs they would take
in. And there would be all manner of sweets: biscuits and tea cakes
with raisins and tiny tarts filled with jelly or figs and Pakistani
sweetmeats and, on occasion, the quintessential Scottish cookie,
shortbread. It was also at the Dog House where I acquired what always
seems to be amusing to my friends, my love of all things Scottish:
comic books, dialect, and, from New Year's Eve celebrations also held
there, Scottish dancing and Haggis. And it was at the Dog House that I
would often hear from my mother the admonition I am still trying to
apply to my life, “Okay, Neil, now that is your last cookie.”

dinners, though, always meant dessert, whether in the elaborate context
of a Pakistani wedding feast where savory curries and rice were rounded
off with sweet rice, colored saffron yellow, burgeoning with raisins
and almonds and coconut slivers, or in the western dinners which my
mother would plan for visiting missionaries or college guests, where
steak and potatoes and peas and carrots and cauliflower with white
sauce and rolls would be followed by apple pie with cheese and coffee,
which was all the more glorious because we had to wait to be old enough
to drink it. And on real feast days, we would get all manner of strange
but generally delicious desserts: jiggling trifles or the steaming plum
pudding with little trinkets in wax paper hidden in it smothered in
custard we would eat at the New Year or the cakes and cakes and cakes,
which my father’s college employees would bring to the house during the
Christmas season. We boys, as soon as it was polite, would check to see
if the icing was butter cream or the much preferred straight up sugar
frosting. If we were really lucky, one might be in the manner of an
English wedding cake and be a deep, dark fruitcake with sweet,
marzipan-style icing. And then we would have cakes all Christmas
season, which we would principally save for Christmas parties but
occasionally have for dessert.

And these feast days of
Christmas—we did not call them that at the time but they certainly felt
like days of special feasting—were also the part of the season of the
fruitcake. Ah, fruitcake, the word which I am made to feel I should
almost snicker at as I utter it. Ah fruitcake, the butt of hundred
Christmas jokes, practical or otherwise, the symbol for nuttiness and
difference, mental or identity related. There was a time when I was
young and insecure when such opinions might affect me, but it has been
a long time since I have realized that loving fruitcake is none of
those things. Rather, it is a mark of distinction. It makes you a
member of a club with very few members, yes, but with members who, when
they do find one another, share great joy.

I can very clearly
understand why people do not like fruitcake. It has all sorts of
ingredients in it which even on their own might thwart a potential
fruitcake club member, which may prove even more offensive as they are
aggregated. And if speaking of aggregates sounds more like making a
highway than making a cake, well you are not far off, as making
fruitcakes is a major endeavor, both because they have so many
ingredients and because, well, they are kind of difficult and expensive
to make, and you rather want to do it all at once in one mammoth baking
session for the whole season.

With fruitcake, not only is the
product good but the process can be enjoyable, bonding people together
like so much candied fruit. One of my Pakistani uncles, Uncle Peter,
was never happier than when at Christmas time he would lead his family
in mixing the fruitcakes at home and then taking them to be baked in
the community baker’s ovens. When our family takes the time to make
fruitcakes here, usually at the nudging of my father, despite the hard
work, it is rewarding, particularly if we do it together, as we cream
the shortening and eggs and sugar, add the fruit and flour, decorate
the cooled cakes with red and green candied cherries and walnuts in
simple patterns, then wrap them up with sliced apples in cheese cloth
soaked in brandy and seal them in Tupperware. And the final product is
made all the more tantalizing because you must wait at least a week to
taste your first piece. And then, after a season of deciding whether to
get out the fruitcake after a nice dinner or refraining for another
day, after getting out the glorious ringed one  on Christmas day
and eating several pieces each, the best piece of fruitcake does not
actually come until February or March usually, when you slice the last
cake that you have intentionally kept aside, long past the Christmas
season, the one in which all the flavors have completely melded
together and the brandy flavor has reached to the core. There is
nothing quite like that long awaited, little piece of dessert.

of my American uncles, Virgil, tells us the story of when they sent
another uncle, Lowell, who was fighting in the South Pacific a ringed
fruitcake, and my grandfather almost as an afterthought placed an apple
on the hole at the center. They were Baptists in the 1940s so perhaps
brandy was not really an option. By the time the fruitcake arrived half
way around the world, the entire apple had almost disappeared and its
flavor had permeated throughout the cake. My uncle, who shared the cake
with his friends, said it was the best fruitcake he had ever eaten.
Despite the serendipity of the apple infused fruitcake, though, I
cannot help but believe the main joy came because the treat would
surely have been completely unlooked for, because it had come as a
token of love, like good news from a far off land.

Though it once
bothered me that most people do not like fruitcake, I have long since
learned not to “throw my pearls before swine,” either by gifting people
with something they will not like or really even by talking openly
about my secret love. No, seriously, I am not all that haughty about
it, and if you already are or become a co-lover of fruitcake, I will be
happy to share. Really, the point is that no matter what desserts we
may enjoy, quirky or common, the sweetness of dessert can surely be a
metaphor for a thousand gifts God gives us on earth and beyond. And,
whether dessert or blessing, each is decidedly sweeter when partaken in
relatively rarity, when awaited with delightful anticipation, received
with thanks and joy, and shared with loved ones.

And, finally, a poem which I wrote for my cousins in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, loved ones with whom I shared numerous merry nights.

Winter Nights

There's Christmas plays on crisp, cold nights
In halls aglow with candle light.
Or paying well-loved friends a call.
Perhaps a trip to Sadar mall*.
Then home we go through darkened streets.
For, after all, home is most sweet.
And then comes the expected plea,
"Dear sister, will you make some tea?"
We'll get the cake and Christmas treats
And light the fire to warm our feet,
And pull our chairs and gather in
And then the real fun begins.
We'll sit and talk and laugh and joke
And some of us will blow our smoke.
And when we're running short of drink,
"Dear brother, it’s your turn, I think."
And then we'll talk and joke some more
Till weary eyes get red and sore.
Then cross the chilly courtyard stones
To thick rizais** to warm our bones.
And in the darkness left behind,
The peanut hulls and orange rinds
Fill dirty cups and bring to mind,
"Praise God above for joy-filled times."

Local shopping district. Think bazaar, not Mallrats.
Thick Pakistani quilt.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus