Sing along with me . . . there’s a party going on right here . . .
Read on to discover the missing link between dollbaby carriages, Truman Capote, Jay Leno, fruitcake, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dark rum, and Harper Lee.
The website for the Fruitcake Festival in Monroeville, Alabama proclaims, “It’s Fruitcake Weather!” and it is, indeed. It’s the time of year when my grandmother would head to the Family Foods in Sunbury, NC to buy candied fruit in teeny plastic containers and go home to bake her cake. She’d do that now so that she’d have time to wrap in cheesecloth and douse it with rum—repeatedly filling up the hole in the middle of the cake–for the next month or so. I remember the bucket she used to keep it in, in the bottom drawer of the sideboard in the old kitchen. On New Year’s Day, we’d each get a heavy wet slice.
But enough about my twisted childhood.
About this year’s festival–the third annual, celebrating fruitcake, Truman Capote, and the Fruitcake Lady: “Homemade fruitcakes of all kinds, specially made by local cooks, will be on sale, along with local pecans and other traditional Southern foods. A Silent Auction will be held for fruitcakes in special tins, as Capote made. Friday night’s program will feature Dawn Hare as Monroeville’s Fruitcake Lady.”
So, my fruitcake research has taught me many things. For one, Monroeville was home both to Harper Lee and to Truman Capote. And two, that some have thought—though it’s now a debunked myth—that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. And three, popular culture, late night teevee, literature, and cooking can intertwine in the strangest ways.
Also, fruitcakes have been popular the world over for centuries, and are considered in a much higher light in other countries—think of Italy’s panettone and Germany’s stollen.
Fruitcake became much more popular during the American colonial period, when sugar from the Americas made candied fruit cheap. Also, fruitcakes and nearly all their ingredients were soaked in dark rum thanks to our friends in the Caribbean.
There’s a fruitcake that still exists that was made in the late 19th century. Jay Leno ate a bite of it in 2003 and survived.
And then, there’s Marie Rudisill, the fruitcake lady, who frequently appeared on Jay Leno’s show–with Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Cuba Gooding Jr., to name a few–between 2000 and her death in 2006. She’s the central theme of this year’s fruitcake festival in Monroeville, which, as you know, starts today. Not only was she a late-night personality—Google her at your own risk. . . . I’m not linking from this site, no way—but she was also related to Capote and remembered fondly her time with Capote and cake-baking.
The Press has just published a new edition, with a new foreword by Jean Anderson, of Rudisill’s Fruitcake: Heirloom Recipes and Memories of Truman Capote and Cousin Sook.
Regarding Truman Capote and his older “old maid” cousin Sook, Rudisill (who was a young aunt of Truman—got it?) writes,
“I would lie on her (Sook’s) bed with Truman an watch her in the firelight, and I would quake deliciously inside, by now twitching like a rabbit. Sook started making fruitcakes in 1921 when she was fifty years old and continued until 1945 when Truman was around twenty-one years old. She sent them to several presidents, Roosevelt being one of her favorites. Sook and Truman hauled the fruitcakes that were to be given out to folks in Monroeville, Alabama, in a little wicker doll carriage.”
Here’s a quote and a picture about Rudisill, both from the Fruitcake Festival’s website:
“Long before she became a celebrity author, she was Marie Faulk, sister of Truman Capote’s late mother, Lillie Mae Faulk Persons Capote. She was raised by her elderly Faulk cousins on South Alabama Avenue, two blocks from the courthouse square, where her nephew Truman also grew up. In the photo. . .she is sitting on the Faulk’s famous rock fence (still maintained as a historical site by the Monroe County Heritage Museum) with her sister Lillie Mae, on the left. Her family called her Tiny, although most reports indicate she had her big, sassy personality even then. She liked to say she helped raise Truman after her sister left him in the care of Sook and the other Faulk cousins, but her relationship with Truman was a rocky one. She wrote several books about Truman’s childhood which angered her nephew.”
Such a complicated family history . . . as is often the case. And still, or maybe because of it, let’s raise a slice to Tiny, the late great Fruitcake Lady.
And if you’re in Alabama this weekend, be sure to stop by.