| Arts & Culture
Food Making Fruitcake for My Father as an Act of Optimism
A year in fruitcake means a year soaking in hope and optimism. Committing to the cakes meant believing that we would all see some semblance of survival.
At the Chinatown funeral home, my brother says in despair to the undertaker, “We have no idea what we’re doing.”
I am back in Houston, in a jet-lagged stupor off a red-eye the day after my father died. My brother wrings his hands while my mother reads the fine print on the death certificate order. The funeral home is humid and smells like somebody’s leftover lunch. Can this really be the way to make arrangements? What we are most concerned about is my father’s eternal life and whether or not we, as third- and fourth-generation Asian Americans, have what it takes to get him there.
Growing up, my father jokingly called us “jook sing,” a colloquial Cantonese term for Chinese people who lack the motherland’s language or culture. It roughly translates to hollow bamboo pole , meaning: We may look Chinese, but we are devoid of what being Chinese actually means. I, like my mother and brother, was raised in Texas and assimilated perhaps a little too well. My father, on the other hand, was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong. He teased us for our inability to read Chinese or understand cultural nuances; we teased him about the way he said tomato or his passion for fruitcake.
My father loved fruitcake. When I was a child, whenever a fruitcake was part of the dessert table during holiday parties, he would enthusiastically go straight for it. Family friends would gift him fruitcakes, trying to get rid of them, and he’d peck away at the cakes well after the holiday season was over, despite our worries of it going bad. Who genuinely enjoys an overly sweet cake ridden with unnaturally neon fruit? My health-conscious mother scorned the artificial coloring, while my brother and I found fruitcake tacky and overly boozy. But if my father saw one on sale or at a party, a portion always came home with us.
My father fled Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China in World War II, escaping under the cover of night as a small child. My grandfather, a contractor and builder with business contacts in Hong Kong, brought his family to the British colony. There, the family occasionally received fruitcake as a gift from my grandfather’s British business partners, and my father would share the bounty with his seven siblings. Later, when my father came to the United States to study architecture, he landed in the Midwest, where he encountered fruitcake once again. For him, it was a nostalgic delight that turned into a family joke in which my parents and I each played a part.
I left my family in Houston for college in western Massachusetts, and I rarely came home for the holidays. So my father and I developed a ritual that spanned over a decade: I baked him a fruitcake and sent it through the mail around Christmastime. Sometimes, it would be a quick Arkansas fruitcake ; other years, I’d scroll Instagram weeks ahead of time for aesthetic inspiration before developing my own recipe. But no matter what, every year, I made some version of a fruitcake and sent it to him in place of me. And every year, he and my mother complained about the time and money I had spent making and mailing it because, as the joke goes, those things can get heavy.
Fruitcake has been derided for its loud, cloying presence on the dinner table for what seems like ages now. It’s the gift nobody wants or knows what to do with. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment fruitcake became a parody , but in the 1970s, fruitcake became a national joke when Johnny Carson commented on late-night television that “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Carson took a stab at the dessert’s declining popularity and its strange ability to keep for an uncomfortably excessive amount of time. The term even morphed into a slur , a shorthand way of insulting a person by calling them “a fruitcake.”
Before it was a joke, fruitcake was already being made in Ancient Rome, where the first known fruitcake recipe appeared over two thousand years ago. From there, fruitcake spread to the rest of Europe, evolving to incorporate ingredients from far-flung corners of the globe , to represent empire. It became symbolic of Britain’s global reach and power: The spices that flavored fruitcakes came from the Silk Road, the liquor and sugar from the Caribbean. It was a dish worthy of celebration, which is how my father first came across it in Hong Kong. Its component parts were precious ingredients, expensive and difficult to obtain, synonymizing the fruitcake with wealth and prosperity.
To make fruitcake, one must also have a wealth of time and energy. Fruitcake must first be baked, wrapped in cheesecloth, and stored in a cool place; then it’s taken out once a week to be brushed with liquor, traditionally for up to a year. Imagine what it was like before proper refrigeration and quick global supply chains! Then and today, the very creation of a fruitcake is a laborious act, a loving tribute to those who are meant to receive and enjoy it. At any point, if not done correctly, the fruitcake can spoil, leaving nothing to show for the time, commitment, and money it took in the first place. Fruitcake was—and is—a delicacy, a way to show love, care, and offering.
Up until last year, I had never worked up the nerve to age a fruitcake for longer than a few weeks. In 2020, I spent ages in the corners of Cake Instagram, looking up different ways to decorate the top, considering flavors for the dried fruit and then the liquor. When I made that year’s fruitcake, it took several days to soak the dried fruit before baking several cakes in varying sizes and then finally making sure to preserve them in liquor for two weeks prior to shipping them off to Texas. But it was worth it when my father and my mother gushed about how good it was compared to any store-bought version, their favorite among all the ones I had ever sent them.
No matter what, every year, I made some version of a fruitcake and sent it to him in place of me.
Fruitcake fell out of popularity in the late twentieth century, deemed clunky and dated. According to pastry chef and California Prune Ambassador Bronwen Wyatt, this most likely has to do with food-processing trends. When I called her to talk about fruitcake, Wyatt explained, “The 1950s did a number on food. New techniques of preservation were introduced, like gelatin and canned vegetables.” Why can your own jellies and jams, let alone age a fruitcake for a year, when all these modern developments encouraged faster, convenient cooking? Then, in the 1970s and 1980s , people began to take greater interest in where their food comes from; now more than ever , there’s a stronger emphasis on consuming the freshest ingredients possible from local and organic purveyors. Who needs ingredients from faraway places, or cakes soaking in liquor and stored in the dark?
But fruitcake appears to be having a revival. Wyatt attributes this to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a renewed interest in sourdough and preservation surged. Fruitcake can be viewed, as she put it, “as an extension of preservation and an interest in older foodways previously considered ‘old-fashioned.’” But the fruitcakes of today also reflect contemporary interests; Wyatt mentioned that she’s seen fruitcakes that are “incorporating fresh-milled flour, more wholesome dried fruit” as we put our own take and interests on tradition.
In January 2021, Wyatt started a Fruitcake Club online that included members from all over the US. Around that time, I hadn’t been able to visit my family for over a year. I joined the Fruitcake Club, where we mulled over flavors, the perfect storage temperature, whether decorative fruit on top would be food-safe, and more. Soon after, I committed to doing the thing I’d always found too daunting: I would make a fruitcake and age it for the full year. This meant overcoming my fear of failure and a natural aversion to long-term commitment. I couldn’t imagine spending a year devoted to something only to have it go belly-up if I made mistakes. On the other hand, the perfectionist in me wanted to create my own fruitcake magnum opus. And I wanted to do it all in time to give it to my father, at a moment when time spent with him felt particularly fleeting.
My father had suffered a stroke almost a decade earlier and lost mobility in half of his body. Though he remained in relatively good health in the following years, the incident had shaken us and remained a reminder of his mortality. I often worried about the distance and the amount of time we were spending apart. How many years do we have left? I thought. How many more fruitcakes?
So I seized the moment. I made my cakes in January 2021 and baked two versions: the first was chocolate, prune, and caraway with an applejack brandy soak; the second was an almond, fig, and dried peach in a Mount Gay rum soak. When I devoted myself to a year in fruitcake, a year of massive uncertainty, I asked myself, “Will dad get to eat it?”
A year in fruitcake means a year soaking in hope and optimism. There is an expectation, when committing to making something that far in advance, that we will make it through the year. To make this fruitcake was to hope that I would see my father soon. While brushing the cakes with liquor every week, I thought about how a year spent with these little loaves was like sharing the year with my dad. Committing to the cakes meant believing that we would all see some semblance of survival. But not all of us did. At least not in the ways we hoped or wanted.
My mother called the morning after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, to let me know my father had passed away in the night. As I packed my suitcase in a haze of shock, I suddenly remembered my fruitcakes. I pulled the two loaves and stuffed them into a plastic freezer bag. I barely had room in my tiny carry-on and ended up flying to Houston with only one pair of pants in the name of packing fruitcake.
When I was inevitably flagged at security, the TSA agent opened the bag and poked around. I fretted she would take them and that I’d have to explain they were for my dead dad. But she simply said, “These look nice!”
I had no idea what I planned on doing with them. I just knew I had to get these fruitcakes home to him.
This confusion also colored the following weeks. My mother, brother, and I had no idea what to do or how to do it. The three of us spun out into our own clouds of grief while also trying to navigate what to do next, together. We were ill-equipped for the Chinese and Buddhist death rites we were expected to perform for my father’s safe passage into the afterlife. We got lost during chanting at the temple; we YouTubed mantras; we googled “fruit for Buddhist altar.” We called my dad’s friends and explained, “We’re jook sing. We don’t know what we are doing.”
He had always been the one to know. We wanted, so badly, to make sure we did everything right.
I just knew I had to get these fruitcakes home to him.
When a Buddhist monk requested his Chinese name for the funeral service, we didn’t know how to write it. A family friend had to write it down and text us a photo, which my mother then emailed to my aunt in the Netherlands, who confirmed it was correct before we sent it to the monk. This full circle is indicative of how diasporic networks function. How we are all delicately tethered to one another all over the world, regardless of borders. How the fruitcake born in ancient Rome spread across Europe, then found its way to my dad—a little Shanghainese boy in British Hong Kong who came to America, who changed the shape of the Houston skyline.
My father never got to taste this year’s fruitcake, the one meant to be my pièce de résistance. I wish I could go back in time and ask him: Where was he when he had his first taste of fruitcake? Did his siblings enjoy fruitcake as much as he did? Did he eat it because he loved it or because he missed Hong Kong and his parents? What are my grandparents’ names? How do we hold on to what we’ve been as we move forward in time?
He thought it was hilarious that we found his fruitcake habit appalling, overly exaggerating how much he enjoyed each bite. In life, he was almost always irritatingly upbeat. When I was growing up, we’d regularly have dinner in Chinatown, where my father would decipher the Chinese menus for us, patiently explaining how to pronounce dishes and what they were. When the waitstaff would come to our table, he’d affectionately look at us and laugh with them about how we were “jook sing.” He would order for us because, even if we didn’t know how to say it, we knew exactly what we wanted.
As we tripped over ourselves to prepare my father for eternal life, to do right by him, any thought of him would make me suddenly stop: I could imagine the image of my father shaking his head at his family, chuckling at our foolishness.
We realized then that we didn’t have to accomplish all the rituals and traditions we were trying to quickly learn and perform correctly; we didn’t have to be “right.” We empty bamboo poles, hollowed out by our own loss, had the best of intentions. We wanted to honor my father as best we could—with rites, with offerings, with fruitcake. That’s what matters.