Every year, as December approached, my grandmother and her friends would start sharing large jars of friendship cake starter amongst 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 Sookdeclared 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 whisky 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. Merry-making. 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.