Books on This Topic Coming Home for Christmas Cookbook Sweet Memories of Christmas Cookbook Colonial Christmas Cooking Victorian Christmas Celebration Cookbook Divided Christmas Civil War Celebrations Colonial Spices and Herbs

Happy Days

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 2003.

“An occasion of literally delirious joy,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt of Christmas in the 1870's.

Perhaps because I am a person with mild Seasonal Affective Disorder, I would not describe the holidays quite that enthusiastically, but the festivities do greatly help to dispel the “glums” which can occur during the dreary, dark days at the dead end of the year.

The gaiety and lights are a pleasant distraction, and the delicious carbohydrates of the season add a soothing calmness to the brain chemical mix. I actually like fruitcake, preferably one with nuts and dried fruit — no garishly-dyed, gummy-bear-like red and green candied fruit! And of course there are stuffing and sweet potatoes and yeast rolls and chocolate fudge and pie. (Turkey is nice, too, although I haven't found it to produce joyful delirium or delirious joy.)

Spiced to Please

About the much maligned fruitcake: in England, where traditional cake-like plum pudding is prepared, ideally that dessert is allowed to ripen a year before being served. (Incidentally, the various dried fruits in it are called “plums.” The “pud” contains nary a real plum.) Even here, stateside, fruitcake improves if aged at least a month.

White fruitcake, made with light-colored fruits and spices, is seen occasionally, and was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's favorite cake (it was always served on his birthday). Burnt sugar caramel-colored Black Cake is a rare and special type of fruitcake, but the typical brownish-colored fruitcakes are made more often. These dark cakes (and mincemeat pies and spice cookies) are replete with sweet spices; and, in old recipes, black pepper.

Historically, the use of these costly spices honored the celebration of Christ's birth. As an old recipe advises, “Add ginger, pepper, and cinnamon in great plenty when making cake for Christmas Day.” A more reserved lady directed, “[Add] cloves to [suit] your judgment.”

Southern foodwriter Edna Lewis recalled her childhood experiences of assisting in fruitcake preparation “in the snug kitchen [where] the sweet smells of dried fruit, grated fresh nutmeg, and spices kept us warm and happy.”