Tis the season! Well, that means different things to different folk. Many people bake lots and lots of cookies, ornately frosted with colored icing. I used to do this when our children were small. I had cookie cutters in all types of Christmas shapes from trees to bulbs to Santa Claus and poinsettias. When decorated with colored icing they were really pretty and good to eat. But, let me tell you this was hard work. For those cookies needed to be rolled out, cut, baked and iced. By the time I had done five or six dozen, I was ready to call it a day. And then I had to clean up. That was the worst of it. Often the icing was done by our children, which meant more clean up. I don't make these anymore, because I tend to eat them.
I look back when I was at home and my mother, just prior to Thanksgiving, would be busy making her yearly fruitcakes to give away. Oh, I can just hear you. Most people don't particularly like fruit cake. Good ones are pretty good, however. Looking back through my mother's recipes,I find all types of things she wrote down and kept, many with a note of from whom or where she got that recipe. There is a doughnut recipe from my grandmother, pickles from an aunt, many notations of the other aunts and grandmothers, and notes on how it was received by the family, like "this is good," or "everyone liked this." The note on her Miracle Fruit Cake recipe says, "A must at Christmas. Keeps well in freezer." Her recipe combined: " 1 cup dates, 1 cup seedless raisins, 2/3 cup butter or substitute, 1 ¼ cups hot water in a saucepan. Boil gently for three minutes. Cool in large mixing bowl. Beat in two eggs and add 2 cup dried fruit and peels and one cup chopped nuts. Sift together 3 cups flour, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1 tsp. soda, 1 tsp. baking powder and 1 tsp. salt. Add to fruit mixture, beating well. Pour into a 9-inch tube pan, lined with greased wax paper. Bake in a very slow oven (275 degrees F) for 3 hours. Remove from pan, cool. Wrap securely in aluminum foil or waxed paper. Store in a clean, air-tight container in cool place. Age 3-4 weeks to improve flavor; will store well for six weeks." Some people stored their fruitcakes wrapped in cloth soaked with brandy for better keeping quality and for flavor. There was another recipe that was used each year and made for the Christmas season. That was mincemeat for pie. When we butchered, our mother would take some of the beef and make mincemeat to can, for my dad loved mincemeat pie. Mincemeat for me is in the same category as fruitcake - just a couple of pieces a year will do it!
Here is a recipe taken from a cookbook of the 1800s. "Take five or six pounds of scraggy beef -neck piece will do - and boil in water enough to cover; take off the scum that rises when it reaches the boiling point, add water from time to time until it is tender, then remove the lid from the pot, salt, let boil till almost dry, turning the meat over occasionally in the liquor, take from the fire, and let stand overnight to get thoroughly cold; pick bones, gristle or stringy bits from the meat, chop very fine mincing at the same time three pounds of nice beef suet; seed and cut four pounds raisins, wash and dry four pounds currants, slice thin a pound of citron, chop fine four quarts good-cooking tart apples; put into a large pan together, add two ounces cinnamon, one of cloves, one of ginger, four nutmegs, the juice and grated rinds of two lemons, 1 tablespoon salt, one teaspoon pepper and two pounds sugar. Put in a porcelain kettle, one quart boiled cider, or one quart currant or grape juice (canned when grapes are turning from green to purple), one quart nice molasses or syrup, a lump of butter; let it come to boiling and pour over the ingredients in the pan after having first mixed them well, mix thoroughly. Pack in jars and put in a cool place; when cold pour molasses over the top an eighth of an inch in thickness and cover tightly." Further down in the book it states, "wine or brandy is considered by many a great improvement, but if 'it causes thy brother to offend' do not use it."
Today, we would never think of keeping cans of food in this way, especially those with meat. But, there are other thoughts about this recipe as well. This is one BIG recipe, making a lot of mincemeat. Note it says take off the fire not off the stove. That fire had to be tended throughout the cooking time and the wood box had to be kept filled, especially during the season of baking and cooking. Then make note of the raisins. Just think of seeding four pounds of dried raisins!! Seeding fresh grapes can be tedious, seeding dried ones almost beyond the imagination. Let me tell you from my own experience, both of these recipes are expensive to make with the added fruit peels, dried fruits and spices. I used to make a fruitcake each Christmas season, but have since quit doing it as it was not a favorite with my family. I have made mincemeat, in smaller amounts, but again it was not a favorite and has since gone by the wayside.
But each holiday season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, favorite recipes and traditions are kept because it is a special time of the year. These old recipes were even more special as the families did not have the option of going to the grocery to purchase any type of cake or baked good they wanted. It was made at home, from scratch, with many homegrown ingredients. We treasure these old traditions for it brings memories of Christmas past when families got together, shared food and recipes that were generations old, and are remembered as "Aunt Tillie's hickory nut cake," or "Alberta's gumdrop bars," or "Mother's doughnuts." It's a page out of history that if you look a bit deeper, gives insight of lives of long ago.
Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer's daughter and now as a farmer's wife. She writes weekly for the Times Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.