I can't remember a time when Mother didn't have a big bottle of Watkins Pure Vanilla Extract on a cupboard shelf, and she frowned at any other brand of vanilla. I know she frequently bought other flavorings and spices from the Watkin's product line, especially their black pepper. Normally, the housewives would place an order and the salesman would deliver it the next time he came around, but very often, the salesman was prepared to go back to his car where he had stocked up on many of the best-selling items, and would bring it back to the ladies immediately. He also had a large black "kit" which he carried with him to each home and that might have just what a lady needed right then.
After school started (the day after Labor Day), Mother would begin gathering up her supplies for making the fruitcakes (she made several at the time mixing it all in a huge stainless steel dishpan with her hands). Of course, back then, there was no such thing (to my knowledge) as buying nuts already shelled, so that was one of the things on her "to-do" list before making the cakes. All the nuts had to be bought or traded for, then shelled, chopped and kept in the "ice-box" until the cake-baking day. The fruits would be bought a little at the time as money permitted, and Daddy would start bringing home the various nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, and Brazil nuts), dried raisins still on dried vines, and dried dates and figs from wherever he found them when he was out on the road. He was an insurance salesman for the American National Insurance Company for a good many years, and knew so many people. He always knew where and when to buy whatever he wanted, some of it black-market during the 2nd World War days of rationing. For instance, I can't remember us ever running out of sugar or coffee. Both of those items were rationed, and carefully measured out and used by every housewife.
We used to crack nuts as we listened to the radio. We listened to the radio every evening, long before we even knew anything about TV. Radio brought us the news, the weather, and all our entertainment. We learned all the latest popular or country-western songs from listening to the Grand Old Opry or the Hit Parade. Both my parents loved music and sang to us. They both played the piano, and the harmonica also, and my father could whistle as well as any musician on radio. The evenings we spent cracking and shelling nuts of all kinds and listening to that little table model Airline radio were some of the best I can remember. It was what my parents called family time, something that too many children of today know very little about.
Mother also candied a lot of her own fruits such as lemons, oranges, pineapples, and mangoes when she could get them. She never used much citron, but candied watermelon rind after peeling away all the green skin. We lived in Florida, so the citrus was not a problem, but the pineapples had to be purchased. The mangoes grew in Florida, but we didn't have a mango tree, so my aunt and uncle in Ft. Myers sent us huge bushel baskets of them during the mango season. They arrived in an old green Railway Express truck. Watermelons were grown locally, and we either bought them or were given them by Daddy's insurance contacts. During some of the war days, he worked in Tampa at the shipyards, and would buy whole arms of bananas right off the banana boats coming in from the Philippines. He found pineapples in the same area probably also grown in the Philippines maybe. Some of our neighbors would give him money to buy arms of bananas for them too, and he'd come home with the car loaded with bananas, pineapples and often a bag full of Deviled Crab Rolls which were sold on every street corner in Ebor City, the Latin section of Tampa. They were spicy hot with peppers, but so good that it was worth getting my mouth burned a little. The green banana stalks were draped with flour sacks and hung in a dark closet to ripen. The pineapples were placed in brown bags in the same closet to ripen. Mother would boil the fresh or dried fruits in sugar water for hours, then when the fruits were done or translucent, they were removed and drained, allowed to dry, and squirreled away until time to mix everything together and make her delicious fruitcakes. Not too many people today will even eat fruitcake, simply because most of the commercial fruitcakes are just thrown together junk, and are made to sell, not eat. They are prettily decorated and they look good, but taste just terrible.
My father worked at the shipyards in Tampa until the war was over. He'd learned that because of an earlier brain tumor, he was classified 4-F and wouldn't be allowed to serve in the military. That nearly broke his heart, but he did the next best thing by working to help make the equipment that our soldiers needed to keep the war away from our American soil. He and Mother also taught us to save everything that could be used to make anything the soldiers might need to fight with. We hunted for and saved every scrap of tinfoil and metal of any kind. We'd load it all in anyone who's car had gas and time, so that it could be taken to our elementary school and added to the huge and ever-growing scrap pile on the school grounds. That scrap pile was a great source of pride to every student as we knew we were helping our country win the war. "A Clean Plate For Victory" was on a great long banner that ran the length of our school cafeteria which my mother and some other ladies painted and hung. No child would be caught throwing a bite of food away. Even if we didn't like it, we ate it since there were so many children in the world who were going hungry, even starving, and we'd have been ashamed to be found "uncaring". Many of us carried PB&J sandwiches to eat at lunch on the days when something was going to be served that we couldn't force ourselves to eat. It was a difficult time for so many, but it never seemed so bad since we were all in the same boat.
I've never known a time in America when we all pulled together for the common good and helped one another in so many ways. No one knew when the neighbor next door would get a letter "edged in black" which meant their husband, father, or son had been killed in action. I had older cousins and two uncles who were fighting for all of us. One uncle was injured and sent home with what was left of his right hand after a bomb exploded near enough to almost take his life. One cousin came home in a flag-draped coffin, and I'll never forget my aunt and uncle's faces as we all waited at the train station for him to arrive. They stood quietly and with such dignity and today I cannot help but think of how many people remember so little about those days.
If a neighbor's child needed new shoes, and they had no ration stamps left to get them, someone did without new shoes for a while longer in order to give their leather stamps to that neighbor. People traded sugar stamps for tire or gas stamps, gave up meat stamps and ate more beans and rice to help someone else. We never thought much about it and did it willingly knowing that those people would do the same for us should we be the ones in need. Kids did without gum and candy so that our soldier boys would get a care package from his family, the Red Cross, or some other service organization. Many families like my parents had Victory Gardens, and raised their own chickens for eggs and meat. What one family grew a lot of, was shared or often traded with someone who didn't grow that particular vegetable. Mother traded eggs and fresh dressed chicken for sugar to make jams and jellies, orange marmalade, and batches of tea cakes, then traded some of those things for something else she needed. She baked and shared her famous hot biscuits for syrup which a neighbor had purchased directly from the man who was making it in North Florida. After I was grown, married, and had 3 little daughters of my own, we went to that same place and bought homemade sugar-cane syrup from the elderly man who was still making it with the help of a faithful donkey almost as old as he was.
Anyone traveling to North Florida or Georgia was begged to bring back fresh peaches and pecans during their harvest season. We didn't grow sweet potatoes either, but we grew more green beans than we could eat, so we traded them for sweet potatoes grown in North Florida by someone's relatives. We traded tons of oranges and grapefruits for good fresh sweet corn grown on farms outside my home town of Lakeland, Florida. Mother made the best pickles with green tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and red bell peppers. Sugar, apple-cider vinegar, and whole all-spice were all she used to make them; I've never tasted such wonderful pickles since. A slab of sharp cheddar cheese, a biscuit, and those pickles would make a great lunch even today.
It's nice what memories a simple recipe can bring back. A person can relive the same feelings over again that remain sharp for the rest of their lives. I'm sure that much of today's news will live in today's children's' memories for years in the future, but for me, I don't think anything will ever equal the days of World War 2 and my own childhood. No doubt the same is true for so many others who lived through those days.
Note: I can't remember ever eating the rich fruitcake when I was a child, as there was always special cake for kids which only had raisins in it and was iced with a plain sugar icing that ran down the sides of the cake and had tiny slices of the red candied cherries on the icing. Since Mother's fruitcakes were so heavily laced with some kind of alcohol, I can understand why they were considered "adult cakes". :-) I do remember my father always eating some of what we called his "rat cheese" with the fruitcake. It was a super-sharp cheddar cheese which I did develop a taste for myself and still prefer it over all other cheeses.)
Now for that 1936 Watkins Pound Cake recipe as given from the salesman, as well as my Mother's Fruitcake recipe which she made using that basic pound cake recipe.
Note: Citron was often used because it was cheaper and often available when other candied fruits were not. Feel free to substitute golden raisins (my personal favorite and what my mother used in place of citron which she really didn't care for anyway). You could also substitute the citron with a combination of candied pineapple and cherries which would make an ideal cake for any occasion and are usually available all year in today's food markets.
By pookarina from Boca Raton, FL
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My grandparents had both an ice-box and a kerosene kitchen stove. My grandmother also used the top of a wood-burning stove in the cellar to cook big pots of stew, dried beans or soups. We kids would go down to the cellar to play and were driven half bonkers by the wonderful aroma of whatever she had cooking. Of course, that was only in the winter time when they'd have heat down there.
Half the cellar was finished and even had a little daybed, table and chairs, and the washer and dryer. There was also a toilet, shower and a big deep sink for washing vegetables before they were carried upstairs for Grandma to cook. I wanted to live down there in that cellar.
Grandpa would make us popcorn on top of that wood-burning stove. He kept a heavy pot down there just for popping corn, and nothing ever tasted better. He almost always had homemade apple cider to go with it.
My Grandma would bake pans of cookies and bring them to us while we played Monopoly. Sometimes, she'd stay and play Old Maid cards or Rummy with us. I'd give a lot for some of those days now. I know we must have eaten hundreds of tuna-fish sandwiches, my favorite.
I hadn't thought of that ice-box or the stoves in way too long. Your stories always bring back nice memories for me. Always love the recipes too Pookarina. The stories stay with me for days and I continue to savor my own memories and smile.
Reading your stories makes me feel that I'm still with my grandmother who would sit and tell us her childhood stories. We wanted them more than the bedtime stories she'd read to us. I can't tell you how much I miss her and the way she cooked and baked.
Thank you Pookarina for sharing your stories and recipes with us. They are wonderful and so appreciated.
We've missed your recipes here lately, or maybe we just missed your stories. Love this one and the recipes too.
Thank you for sharing Pookarina.
Well, Deeli and Shaywood, I left out an important part of my story, I see now. I should have told you about our cook-stove. Along with the ice-box, we also had a 3-burner kerosene stove with a 2-burner oven at the right end of it. NESCO was printed on the green glass front of the oven. It had heat settings of LOW, MED and HIGH. It's what I learned to cook on, and to this day, if I had to cook on a kerosene stove, I think I could do just as good a job as I do now with this handy-dandy electric range with convection oven and regular oven, Glass top etc. The thing scares me. Too many settings.
The ice-box worked great as long as it had plenty of ice in it. The ice man came every other day but "never on Sundays". We had a big card that went into the window that he could see when he drove by, and depending on the "number" that was UP, he'd know how many pounds of ice that Mother wanted. It was usually 50 pounds, but sometimes, she'd want an extra 25 if we were having a lot of company, making homemade ice-cream in the hand-cranked churn etc. I wanted to stand at the street and beg him for a long icicle and did until I was so big that I felt ashamed to act like a "child".
That was the best ice though, as clear as a bell, and it'd last a lot longer than the ice that looks frosted inside. Once in a while, we'd be riding in the car, and Mother would have Daddy stop at the ice-house and pick up more ice. You drove up, and the attendant would come out of the office, and ask you how many pounds you wanted...then he'd go inside the big freezer part, and hack away at a huge block of ice that was scored so all he had to do was follow the lines to get exactly how much ice you wanted. Nothing was ever weighed. It was just "sized" right.
Memories, memories. I wish all the kids today could have just a few of the days I had as a child.
I find myself clinging to those memories and trying not to think too much about what the world is missing today. I love going to all the antique kitchen museums like they have in the old historical homes. I haven't run across many things that I didn't recognize. LOL.
Thank you both for writing.
Pookarina / Julia
Oh, Shaywood! Your story about your mom's "icebox" just brought back memories of my grama's "stove". After my papa (grandpa) passed away in late 1969 by dad and his brother and sister thought it would be a really nice idea to surprise grama by taking away her wood burning stove (that she had used since before those kids were even born) with a brand spanking new electric stove while she was out and about one day! Well, needless to say she was mightily upset and won the war and her original stove was brought back and the electric one returned to the store and that extra cost for returning it fell on daddy, uncle and auntie. ;-) My grama had her "original stove" until she passed away.
Thank you so much for both the recipe and the memories that go along with it. I was born in 1945, but grew up with my great-aunt telling me old-time stories from the pecan country of Alabama.
Thank you for sharing your story of the old days. I too think that if America would go back to some of the old ways we would all be better off. I so wish things were like that when I was growing up and while raising my children. I do understand that life back then was not a piece of cake but people back then cared about one another and knew what Family/Friends really meant. With today's technology my young adult children don't even want to talk live on the phone, they text.
What caught my attention to your post was your recipe.
I just put my deceased Mother's recipe for "Butter Cake" in the oven and came across this. I can remember growing up and about once or twice a month Mom would make this recipe and we could hardly wait for it to come out of the oven. The smell was so wonderful. I make this on a regular basis now but for some reason it just don't taste like Momma's did. I have watched her make it on many occasions and do exactly what she did but I guess I will never be able to duplicate it exactly. I guess it was the extra pinch of love that she threw in. :-)
Your recipe is almost exact to her Butter Cake Recipe.
Again, Thank You for bringing back some wonderful memories.
Pookanna, I think you should win the contest for "Best Story Teller" I so enjoy reading all of your notes, but this one was the best! Maybe because I remember the exact same things that you do. I especially remember that the kitchen smelled like a saloon when my mother "refreshed" her famous fruitcakes and yes they were stored in an "ice box", ours was in a little storage room off the back porch, because when my grandpa died, we put his brand-new Electric refrigerator in the kitchen, but mother couldn't get along without her ice box. Thanks again for the memories. Sylvia (used to be in Saipan, but now Valrico, Fl)
Thank you so much for the wonderful story. It brings back a memory I have of helping my grandmother before Thanksgiving with the chopping up of the candied fruits. Her fruitcake was wonderful. I think this year I'll do both. I didn't remember some of the steps and your wonderful post will help.
Thank you so much for mentioning the salt that I omitted in the ingredients. I use salted butter and don't add additional salt, but the original recipe calls for a pinch of salt. I was taught that a pinch was about 1/8 tsp, so if you use it OK, but if you are using salted butter, you don't have to bother at all. I've never missed it.
Sorry for the omission though. It causes confusion and I do apologize.
Thank you to everyone for the lovely feedback. It's very heart-warming.
Pookarina / Julia
Oh Pookarina Julia, what a wonderful story! Oh how I miss the days of old when everyone cared about everyone and everyone acknowledged and helped everyone! Sadly, it's not the way you write of very often anymore. Okay, I do not like fruitcake even though I try to but I am going to make it using your moms notes and maybe that will give me an appreciation for it that I haven't found yet. Oh, and you definitely get my thumbs up. ;-)
I treasure my Watkin's cook book that my Mother-in-love gave me that her Mother in love gave to her. I will probably break with tradition and give it to my daughter, however. :) I have always enjoyed reading it and looking at it at one point and time I was reading/using it so much the pages started to fall out and I was afraid that it would be ruined (horrors 0.0) that I gave it back to MIL. I love that cook book and I can now occasionally find the spices at Walmart at least b4 the renovation they did. It has some great inexpensive recipes in it. Anyway thank you for the memory.
I loved your story. It was great. I do have a question for you about the recipe. How much salt is to be used? It wasn't listed in the ingredients.
Thank-you for sharing this wonderful story and recipe.
I was brought-up listening to all sorts of war, and post-war events, of every range. My Grandfather [a Brit] had served and was injured in WW1. I do believe that families with less did seem to have in many ways "more". I am not being factitious, but on hearing these stories through the years it seems evident that families worked together, took more pride and care in "sense of community" and actually knew their neighbors! Since I was a child, I have never known the neighbors on both sides of my streets and the street behind my home. I say HI to everyone young and old who walks by my house when I am outside working in my garden. People love to stop and chat, kids too. The most memorable compliment I've had, was from two young guys, 14ish, who looking tough as nails, stopped and told me how much they liked my garden and asked questions about it too. We just like to be recognized at any age don't we. Without giving common-courtesy how ever do we expect to get it back? Anyhow, I wander; your story is just heart-warming, and your recipe too. I adore a well-made fruitcake and your absolutely right! They do have to be home-made. I'm going to try this, this Sept. and make enough for a few gifts. Unfortunately not too many like it nowadays.
Secret, try toasting a slice in the toaster oven and then see if you don' put in another right away! Yum.
Brenda from Oshawa Ontario.
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