Family Traditions

Write about a few of your favorite family traditions.

Humans have a prodigious ability to create and destroy. The very concept of culture ( big C or little c) is something that we are continuously developing and eliminating. So traditions exist as a process; we continually reshape them even as we celebrate them. I’ll have to beg the reader’s forgiveness; although I no longer work as an anthropologist, I’ll never shake the orientation.
Family traditions offer a look into the processes of development and loss. In October of 2023, I’ll initiate the 50th anniversary of the Carreras family fruitcakes. Were fruitcakes a Carreras family tradition before then? Nope. And I honestly do not remember why I settled on making fruitcakes that fall fifty years ago. But every fall since I start on the family fruitcakes – which after baking, settle in for a long rum-soaked gestation before being shipped off for family eating during Christmas.

I was looking for something to replace my grandmother’s Poppyseed bread. Grandma had died years before without leaving a recipe and without taking apprentices. So her tradition, dating back generations in her family, effectively died with her.
Replace a traditional Hungarian treat with fruitcake? As a family, we tried to duplicate her recipe without luck. She had always been elusive on her secrets, a sort of “pinch of this, a pinch of that” description of the process that guaranteed it could not be duplicated. So as a family, we eventually threw in the towel on reproducing it. A family tradition lost.

That was where we were the year I first made my rum-soaked fruitcakes. The first year I only made two; one for myself and my wife and one for my parents. Things evolved. Over the years, the recipe evolved; ingredients were added, quantities changed, and the rum-soaking technique matured. Eventually, I reached about twenty cakes and distributed fruit cakes in early December to any family member who appreciated them. There is a bit of drudgery involved in making that many. but commitment is part of tradition.

At fifty years, I can look back and see how the tradition started, developed, and is being passed on. A few years ago, my oldest son apprenticed, transcribed the recipe, and can now make the cakes. I fully expect that, over time, his cakes will vary from the ones I made. That’s part of what makes traditions alive; they change and develop while staying steady parts of our expectations in life.

About seven years ago, I was able to replicate grandma’s Poppyseed bread. I now bake this for the family at Christmas time and tell the story about how she rewarded and punished family members by giving them loaves with more or less filling. After all, it’s not only the food that makes the tradition; it’s the telling of the stories surrounding it.

Families are microcosms of culture, and family traditions connect members across generations leading back to the past and forward to the future.

Forty-nine Years of Fruitcakes

This year is the forty-ninth anniversary of my making a rather signature fruitcake. So hold on a moment before the “yuck” or the condescending comments about brick doorstops. I’ll say this directly; there is little connection between my cakes and the storied concoctions of your aunt Ethel or the bricks that are available from the stores.

Those are dried fossilized aggregates of stone-hard, over-baked, stale fruits with a batter of over-sugared cake. It is true; such things are so hard and durable that they have been considered materials to build housing for the homeless.

Fruitcakes started as a pragmatic solution to an old problem. There was a need to preserve some of the fruits of summer into winter. Baking them into a durable cake was a solution. I’ve heard that after baking, the cakes were punctured with skewers and wrapped in linen soaked in wine or brandy. The partnership of a firm cake, the cloth, and the alcohol could preserve the cake for a significant time. The cakes were then sealed into tins so the alcohol would not evaporate.

About the only thing left of the old tradition for most fruitcakes is the part of being sealed in the tin. These modern fruitcakes are poor representations of what can be a sensual snack. The key is in the ingredients and the storage.

You’ll have to start with good-quality figs, dates, nuts, and raisins. These are added to a buttery batter. In a good fruitcake, there is only enough batter to hold the fruit together in a mass. I make small cakes because if you buy quality ingredients, these cakes can be costly and because I bake for an appreciative group of family and friends. This year there are fourteen; some years, I’ve made as many as twenty.

After baking, the cakes are allowed to rest, wrapped in muslin, and placed in Ziploc bags. Each bag of two cakes initially receives four to six shots of rum or brandy. Then, the entire batch is placed in a cool spot and allowed to settle. I check the wrappings weekly and add the rum as needed. Then, before I ship the cakes out, I add a final dose of rum.

You are saying to yourself, “that’s a lot of rum!” Correct, it is a lot of rum. I could avoid the fruitcake/ aunt Ethel comparison by calling them rum cakes, but then I’d have to explain that they were not what is traditionally known as rum cakes.

My cakes are moist with a very slight peppery taste from the rum. Kept carefully wrapped, the cake will last after being opened. But most do not last that long, and it’s part of why I make small cakes – just enough to enjoy, not enough to go stale afterward.

When I started doing these forty-nine years ago, I was fresh off the road as a traveler, settling down and going to college ( at last).
I was no longer surfing friends’ sofas or residing in Single Occupancy Rooming houses. I was no longer getting shot at, hustling gigs in bars and cheap coffeehouses. Instead, I was announcing a new sort of conventionality in my life.

Of course, you make a person look conventional, but you can’t change what’s inside – “Still crazy after all these years.”

The Poppyseed Roll

Today I have the train going around the Tree to prepare, prep the evening buffet, wrap presents, and…bake grandma’s Christmas Poppyseed bread!.

Grandma was Hungarian and German. An exceptional woman, she spoke five languages fluently – Hungarian, German, English, Spanish, and Yiddish. Her culinary achievements included traditional American cuisine, Hungarian, German, and married to my grandfather – Spanish. She was why the Carreras household consumed Borsht, potato pancakes, Saurkraut, and tons of Spanish food. My mother dutifully learned all this to please my father, but she taught no one the poppyseed bread.

The poppyseed bread played a role in family holidays and politics. Not all of the long rolls of poppyseed bread were created equal. Some had voids filled only with air, not poppyseed filling, and some have ends which are only bread. Displease grandma, and your part of the family got empty ends and voids. Grandma knew.
To be clear, I should say that I am talking about the “lost” poppyseed bread. When grandma died, it went with her. It wasn’t that she never talked about it, she just was forever vague about it, and when she died, a hurried conference within the family failed to come up with a consensus of how the excellent stuff got made. After a year or two and dozens of failed attempts, interest died down. Around 1972 I began a new tradition of making rum-soaked fruitcake ( don’t eat this stuff and then drive). I think the family liked the rum part of it mostly. The poppyseed bread remained a part of our family holiday lore, like the little German Santa that we’ve had since forever. We talked about it like it was a beloved missing relative. I’m sure that my uncle Lenny would have died a happier man knowing that I had eventually reconstructed the recipe.
Having assumed the role of family holiday baker ( twenty rum-soaked beauties every Christmas), I couldn’t let the “lost” poppyseed bread rest. Periodically I’d try a new recipe. At last, I found a few leads online from Hungarian women with the same traditions. The result? Poppyseed bread that my sister and mother couldn’t tell from Grandma’s.
So now comes the question. How vague should I be about the secret? Who gets the voids? After all, it is a tradition we are talking about here!

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves, bankers ( wait that seems to be real close to thieves), pawnbrokers, scholars, travelers, perfumers, and a multitude of others. As most of you may know Nick is linked to the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas, and to the chimney sliding olympics. This last bit was evidently due to his dropping coins down a chimney. It’s amazing what can develop from a simple act of charity and kindness. Our family connection may come from seafaring over the generations.
My father ( a Nicholas of course) was an “Easter and Christmas Christian,” and my mother was about the same. Dad did note that there was a tradition of naming boys in the family Nicholas after the Saint. And, when I started researching the Carreras family history, Nicholas’ were everywhere. Our Carreras’ originate in Girona, Catalonia. So many Nicholas Carreras’ were baptized in the same churches that it becomes challenging to differentiate potential ancestors.
I have a personal attachment to Saint Nicholas, being I am Louis Nicholas Carreras, and although woodcarvers got neglected in the calendar of saints, I would nominate Nicholas patron saint of sailors and woodcarvers.

old Carreras Santa

The photo accompanying this post is of our family Santa. This Saint Nick dates to the early 1940s, and I don’t recall a Christmas in our house without it. Note that it is not a jolly richly attired Clement Clarke Moore Santa, nor a Coke swizzling, cooking slurping overweight Saint Nick. It’s a tired older man with a walking stick and a basket full of presents. It is a type of Saint Nick that could found in German, or my Grandmother’s case, German- Hungarian homes. And, that is where the preference for this Santa comes. My father bought it in a German delicatessen in New York one Christmas, and no Christmas in the Carreras home would have been complete without it. My Grandmother, who could get most of whatever she wanted from my Dad, tried without luck to get it for her apartment. There would have been an instant mutiny if it had changed households. If Grandma wanted to appreciate it, she had to come to our house to do so.
After my father died, Santa migrated to Virginia. It was at my sister’s house for many years. But, a few years ago, Santa came north to New England and now graces our home at Christmas.
Note that Santa is not richly attired in plush or velvet, does not have a vast flowing beard – and has no magic sled pulled by flying deer. He’s the sort of Santa that complains about his aching feet after a trudge through the snow getting your kids their presents. He has no Santa Hot Line, and NORAD does not track him. He represents simple goodwill and love. We do not need more during his feast day or at Christmas.

Happy feast of Saint Nicholas.

%d bloggers like this: