It has to be five years or more since Cost Plus World Market returned to Omaha, and since its return, it’s become once again my go-to shop for Tim Tams, Pickled Onions, Golden Syrup, Fruit Cake, Irish Shortbread and Bisto Gravy Granules. It was just after Halloween, and try as I might, I couldn’t manage a Tim Tam slam with leftover Snickers or Kit Kat treats, so it was time for another buy up of Tim Tams. Foods of the World is at the back of World Market, and I headed straight for the Tim Tams as soon as I walked into the shop; I came to a screeching halt surrounded by a display of Christmas foods and treats from around the world.
I’ve heard it said that some people complain late October is far too early for shops to be putting out their Christmas merchandise. And I’d be one of those persons if it wasn’t for the fact that I can buy traditional fruitcake at some of these shops. I can remember when, like most Australians, I could come by fruitcake year-round at cake shops and supermarkets. A slice of fruitcake after tea, or as an afternoon snack, with a flat white or cup of tea is a marvellous finish to a satisfying meal. Now, it’s safe to say Americans don’t have the same love for fruit cake as Australians. In most US cities, you’re not able to walk into a cake shop and buy a classic, dark, moist fruitcake; in Omaha, you even have trouble finding a cake shop.
Oh, how I miss the taste of fruitcake. I’ve known people who eat fruitcake with a slosh of custard, cream, or ice cream, but most genuine fruitcake eaters keep the custard and cream for Christmas plum pudding, which fruitcake fanciers think of as a boiled fruitcake. For as long as I can remember, nanna made her traditional Christmas plum pudding for our family Christmas Day get-togethers. The three families always arrived at nanna’s place a few hours before the sit-down dinner.
Mum, Aunt Peg and Aunt Bet would head off to the kitchen with nanna to prepare the food, and even though the temperature hovered around the nineties on Christmas Day the gas stove and the wood-burning stove was going flat out. There was no air conditioning or fans, and so the kitchen temperature was above one hundred degrees. My brother and I went outside with our cousins Andrew and Peter to play by the fig tree in the front yard and the long grass around the backyard sleepout. Bruce and the little cousins Margret, Jeff and Russell, were too young to play with the big kids. I never thought about what granddad, dad and Uncle Ian and Ken, were doing. Now that I think back, they were probably in grandad’s shed, sinking a few cold ones and keeping themselves out of the kitchen; but not Uncle Ian, you could bet a penny to a quid the only alcohol that ever touched his lips was what was part of a Freemasons ritual.
Everyone sat around nannas dining room table; granddad had put in two expansion leaves, so the table was big enough to seat twelve. Nanna decorated the table with Christmas bon-bons, and the centrepiece was a small eight-inch, artificial, conical pine tree. Christmas dinners were always roast pork with perfect crackling, apple sauce, roast potatoes and carrots and pumpkin, peas, roast lamb, and plum pudding for dessert.
Nanna started her plum pudding at least four weeks before Christmas Day. She’d mix dried fruit, suet, treacle, cloves, ginger, sixpences, threepences, and other ingredients and then wrap the mixture in an old tea towel or pillowcase, tie it with string, and simmer it for a day. After which, she’d hang the cloth orb in the kitchen-bathroom doorway, where it would hang proudly until Christmas Day dinner. As soon as we finished our hot roast dinner and wiped the sweat from our foreheads, the ladies went into the kitchen to prepare the pudding. The pudding went from the doorway into a pot of simmering water. Nanna somehow knew when it could be taken from the bubbling water and have its cloth removed. The ladies cut the naked pudding into serving-size pieces, set the pieces in dessert bowls on the kitchen table, and topped them with cream.
When nanna announced, puddings ready, we raced into the kitchen. We weren’t allowed to reach for a bowl of pudding; instead, nanna handed a bowl to us. It was as if our name was on the bowl and only visible to her. As soon as we discovered the sixpences and threepences hidden in our pudding and sucked them clean of the moist goodness, we headed back outside to play in the hot summer afternoon sun. Many times there was uneaten pudding left in our bowls.
A few years ago, when I was in Melbourne on one of my frequent Down Under visits, cousin Russell thought a family get-together was a good idea. We were in the kitchen drinking a few ice colds, and our conversation was loud with interruptions of yeah and who remembers when.
Cousin Russell: Remember nanna’s Christmas pudding. We’d eat it double quick looking for the sixpences and threepence’s she put in it when she made it.
As we grew older, Christmas Dinners and Christmas changed. And they changed forever after Uncle Ian and dad decided to take the dirt nap. Christmas dinners moved to our house, and it was just mum, my brother and I, and nanna and granddad, sitting around the table. Mum’s cousin Mavis joined us after her husband died. Mum maintained the traditional roast pork and lamb Christmas dinner, but she added roast chicken and replaced nanna’s plum pudding with the threepences and sixpences with a trifle and pavlova. We ate in the dining room, which mum decorated with a strand of silver garland around the side-way window and one of nanna’s Christmas trees on the table. As soon as granddad and I finished eating, we headed up the passage to the lounge room, under the pretext of watching television, to sleep off our Christmas dinner.
In my teenage years, I headed off to the beach as soon as I finished Christmas dinner. I was on school holidays, and Christmas day was just another day of an endless summer at Williamstown beach. Now that I think back, it was a sign that I was maturing into a responsible adult. Like the typical Aussie male, I didn’t think of Christmas as anything special. It’s the time of the year to take a few weeks off work for a caravan on a camping holiday, to spend lazy days at the beach, or head off to somewhere in South-East Asia. There’s no time to think about chestnuts roasting on an open fire or dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh when there’s the Boxing Day Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a cricket test match between Australia and an international touring team at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and firing up the barbie in the backyard with the mates every weekend.
Not having nanna’s boiled plum pudding every year at Christmas didn’t mean I went without the taste of fruitcake. Mum made a fruitcake, along with her lamingtons, matchsticks, vanilla slices, and butterflies on her Sunday baking afternoons. It was a light fruitcake, full of dried fruits, currants and raisins. We’d take a piece of the fruitcake, wrapped in greaseproof paper, every day to school as part of our lunch. Back then, school lunches consisted of only three standard items; sandwiches, a piece of cake or biscuits, and fruit. Mum made my school lunch sandwiches each morning; she’d wrap the cut-in-two sandwich in greaseproof paper and put it with the fruitcake and a piece of fruit into a brown paper bag.
Every boy swapped parts of their school lunch with other boys, and my fruitcake was a sought after item. I never swapped my fruitcake with any of the Yugoslav, Cypriot, and Maltese migrant boys bused to school each day from the hostel a couple of miles down Kororoit Creek road from Williamstown Tech. I was aghast whenever I looked into their lunch bags; their lunches were a collection of crusty wedges of bread, slabs of pungent-smelling cheeses, and strange-looking dried sausages. Today, those cured meats, pieces of artisan bread, and cheeses are the foundation of gourmet sandwiches. Today, I’d be the first one to swap a slice of mums 12-inch square light fruitcakes for a Yugoslav schoolboys lunch bag.
When I finished lunch, I’d fold the greaseproof papers along their creases, put them into my empty paper bag, fold the paper bag into a small packet and put it into my trouser pocket. Mum used the greaseproof paper and paper bag the next day and the next for our school lunch. At the start of the week, I had a new brown paper bag to fold and put into my pocket; mum kept the brown paper bags from the fruit and grocer shops when she did her Friday afternoon shopping.
Whenever I taste fruitcake again, I start to think it’s more than time to bring back the joy of eating fruitcake as a Christmas custom. I’ve heard it said there are about a billion cookies left out each year for Santa and 500 million glasses of milk to help him wash them down. I think a good place to start the Christmas fruitcake custom would be to get rid of the cookies and milk on the kitchen table and leave a bottle of beer and a fruitcake laden with rum for a Santa snack.