Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins
Every year, as December approached, my paternal grandmother and her friends would start sharing large jars of friendship cake starter among each other. After all, what better way to show a little Christmas cheer and help a sister through the stressful holiday season than with a Ball jar filled with assorted canned fruits that had been fermenting for a month or more. Just perfect for the season of merriment — sweet, fruity … and lousy with brandy.
Now I have always suspected that friendship cake (aptly named, I might add, because the more you eat, the friendlier you get) was really just a ruse so that nice southern ladies could have a little nip in the middle of the day. It wouldn’t be seemly, you see, to knock back a pre-party shot, no matter how many relatives were fixing to descend on you, no matter how many gifts were left to wrap, no matter how much cooking and dishwashing lay ahead. But a little fruit served over cake, or ice cream, or straight out of the jar, well, it’s just a little dessert, after all. A sweet treat to give you a little sugar boost. And it would be positively rude not to partake of a gift. No matter if it is so stout that just removing the lid will make your pin curls droop. One mustn’t be rude.
Come to think of it, many traditional southern Christmas desserts seem to include more than just a little of the sauce.
Mama always said William Faulkner was referring to Lane cake when he described a dessert that was “wicked as sin.” Despite that characterization, Lane cake was always on our holiday menu. Created by Clayton, Alabama, native Emma Rylander Lane, this layered white cake features a filling comprised of eggs, sugar, coconut, pecans, raisins, and, of course, bourbon. Now Emma must have been some sort of cooking phenom because making a Lane cake is no mean feat. There are egg whites to beat until your arm falls off, pecans to shell and chop, coconut to peel and grate. It’s a flat lot of work. I can only imagine that after all that effort, Emma might have tasted the bourbon just to make sure that it would be the perfect complement to her confectionery creation. Just a teensy taste. Or two. Just to make sure the cake would be fit to eat.
Another Christmas favorite is rum balls. Crushed Nilla wafers mixed with Karo syrup, nuts, cocoa and a little 151 to hang it all together — does it get any better? There would always be a big plateful of rum balls at our family Christmas party. I remember sneaking them with my cousins as children. One bite and a warm feeling spread upward through my nasal cavities and down deep in my chest. Two bites and, well, I just felt warm and fuzzy all over. And what is Christmas really all about but feeling warm and fuzzy? Well, there is the birth of baby Jesus.
But sometimes it’s all about fruitcake, at least in Prohibition-era Monroeville, Alabama. Truman Capote and his spinster cousin kicked off their winter holiday whenever Sook declared it to be “fruitcake weather.” Off they would go with their savings from the past year to procure all the ingredients, including, and most importantly, a quart of bootleg whiskey from one Mr. Haha Jones, which he gave them for a promise of a cake. After days and days of work and after all of the cakes had been made and shipped away to their lucky recipients, Truman and Sook were left with just a little whiskey in the jar, just enough to divide in celebration of another year of fruitcake success. And celebrate they did with much singing and dancing in their otherwise somber, teetotalling household. “Road to ruination?” Hardly. Greasing the skids to unabashed revelry? Most certainly.
And that’s what I like in a holiday – revelry. Merrymaking. Jollity. I like sharing recipes and traditions. I like noshing on a bourbon-soaked raisin or two and dancing with my mama in the kitchen just like Truman and Sook. I like the warm fuzzies on a chilly afternoon. And I love me some sweet, liquor-y desserts — the making, the baking, and especially the eating.
Now I’m sure that we had many holiday treats sans shinny.* Surely we did. I think. Maybe a piece of divinity or a sugar cookie or something. But one thing I am definitely sure of is this — our Christmases were always merry and bright. Very merry and bright indeed.
*Shinny is short for shine, which is short for moonshine. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout says, “Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” If you drink a lot of shinny, or even a little bit, you will certainly be tight, among other things.
Friendship Fruit Cake Starter
1 can pineapple chunks, drained
1 can sliced peaches, drained
1 can apricot halves, drained
1 jar maraschino cherries, drained
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup brandy
1. Mix everything up in a two-quart nonmetallic bowl. Put it to the side and leave it covered at room temperature for three weeks, stirring twice a week.
2. Reserve one cup mixture for future starter, and enjoy or share the rest!
3. To continue the Friendship Fruit, every one to three weeks, add one cup sugar and one can of the fruits to the reserved starter, alternating fruit each time. If you can stand to, then leave it alone and covered at room temperature another three days before using.
Cook’s note: Starter can be used to make a fruit cake (find recipes online), served over ice cream or pound cake, or jarred up to give to your friends as presents! Just be sure to add a little tag with instructions so they can keep their starter going.
Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog folkwaysnowadays.com.