Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Prop Styling: Mary Clayton Carl; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

In the small farming community where I grew up, everyone celebrated Christmas in much the same way. We put up a tree and then hung it with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. Our houses were decorated inside and out with magnolia leaves, holly, and wreaths of cedar. We sang carols in church and posed as angels, wise men, or shepherds. We exchanged gifts with friends and kin. Santa Claus came down the chimney with a sack of toys. And on Christmas Day, families gathered for a feast of traditional dishes that seldom varied from year to year.

It's the feast that I remember the most fondly, not the stockings or dolls or bikes. The King family took turns hosting the Christmas dinner and bringing their signature dishes: Aunt Collie Ruth's chicken and dressing, Cousin Helen's dumplings, Jell-O salad from Aunt Rosalyn, Uncle Rex's homemade rolls. But it was my mother who would create the biggest stir. Her fruitcakes, one light and the other dark, were always anticipated and sometimes even applauded. What made them so special that a single taste could convert even the most avid fruitcake hater? It would be years before I would know.

The fruitcake preparation began weeks before Christmas. In a ritual worthy of a Truman Capote tale, Mother began with the pecans that grew on our farm. My sisters and I picked them up, but everyone helped with the cracking. Daddy chopped the nuts in perfectly sized pieces; Mother chopped up dates and the candied fruit, cherries, and pineapple. She preferred currants over raisins but as a lesser ingredient. She turned up her nose at citron, which she swore was the reason fruitcakes got a bad rap.

Courtesy of Cassandra King

Mother baked the dark cakes and then the white ones in tube pans. The main difference was that the dark cake called for brown sugar and spices—allspice and mace—while the lighter cake had no spices and used white sugar. I remember the batter of each being so thick that she mixed it by hand. The cakes always turned out heavy and dense with pecans, dates, and other fruits. A teetotaler, Mother sent Daddy to the liquor store for their best whiskey, some of which went into the cake batter. She sprinkled whiskey over each cake and then wrapped them tightly in booze-saturated cheesecloth. The cakes were stored in airtight crockery to mature for weeks. Mother checked on them and occasionally sprinkled a bit of whiskey over the cheesecloth to keep the cakes nice and moist.

When I grew up and had my own family, my own Christmas traditions, I didn't try to duplicate Mother's fruitcakes because she gave us one each year. After she died, no fruitcake I ever had was as good as hers. My kids refused to even try one, and so the desserts disappeared from my repertoire. Several years later, in a different household and a different time, I had married a man who was writing his own cookbook. I shared my stories with him, about growing up on a farm and raising the food we ate. When I told him about my mother's fruitcakes, he got excited. "Unlike most people, I actually love fruitcake," he said. "Let's make one this year."

Courtesy of Cassandra King

Alas, it wasn't the success I had hoped for. I had found Mother's old cookbook from her women's club but approached it skeptically. Obviously, she'd modified it to suit her tastes by changing a lot of the ingredients. Oh, the cake my husband and I made turned out beautifully, but it wasn't Mother's. After a couple more failed attempts, I finally modified her recipe to suit our palates. I substituted dried fruit for the candied stuff and used brandy instead of whiskey for soaking the fruit, mixing into the batter, and dousing the cheesecloth. That one, we declared a success. No, it wasn't Mother's, but we liked it. I made an extra one to take to the Christmas dinner that the King family was having at the farm. My father was in his nineties; who knew how many more Christmas dinners he'd have?

Courtesy of Cassandra King

I told Daddy I had a surprise dessert, so after dinner, I brought out my beautiful fruitcake. After unwrapping the cheesecloth, I placed it on Mother's crystal serving plate, surrounded it with holly leaves, and then brought it in to much fanfare. My sister had dished up ambrosia—a medley of fresh oranges, pineapple, and pecans—that Mother used to make. When I placed the pedestaled cake in the middle of the table, my father's face lit up. "You made your mama's white fruitcake!" he cried. "Ah…sort of," I hedged. Using Mother's ornate silver knife, I cut generous pieces for everyone and placed them on the dessert plates, next to the ambrosia. I saw Daddy eyeing his suspiciously.

"Just try it, Daddy," I said. "It's not Mother's, okay? But it's still good."

I could tell by his frown that he wasn't quite in agreement, though he gamely took a bite. "Your mama made the best fruitcake in these parts," he said. "She was famous for them. Even folks who didn't like fruitcake liked hers."

My husband caught my eye and winked, and my sisters hid their smiles. We'd all known Daddy wasn't likely to appreciate my efforts, though he would be too polite to say so. I turned to him rather defensively and said, "You need to know that I tried everything to duplicate Mother's fruitcake, Daddy, but I finally gave up. Obviously she had a magic touch that I lack."

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He stared at me for a minute and then surprised all of us by throwing back his head, laughing, and saying, "Ha! She had a secret ingredient, all right, but she never knew it." "What on earth?" I gasped.

Daddy laughed so hard he slapped his knee. "It was me. Every time your mama wasn't looking, I'd sneak into the closet and pour more whiskey over those cakes. That's why everybody liked them so much. She would've killed me if she'd known."

It took a minute to sink in; then we looked around the table at each other and howled with laughter. Then I said, "Do y'all remember Aunt Collie Ruth saying she would go to her grave before she ever let a drop of whiskey cross her lips?"

"Maybe so," Daddy said, "but she always had two pieces of your mama's fruitcake."

I glared at him, saying, "You should've told me! All this time, I've been trying to figure out Mother's secret."

Daddy shrugged it off. "You never asked me," he said. "You girls always thought your mama was the only one who knew anything about cooking. I'm not a bad cook myself."

My husband patted my shoulder. "Now you can give it up," he said. "Next year, your daddy and I will make the fruitcake."

And they did. If Aunt Collie Ruth had still been with us, she would've asked for seconds.