Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Important Update to Nana's White Fruitcake

Originally Posted at Little Merry Sunshine on December 5, 2009.

Last weekend I sat down to make Nana's White Fruit Cake. Immediately, I noticed there were a few important tips missing and learned my own lessons, so I have updated Nana's recipe below to make it better reflect her actual fruit cake and because I want you to have a successful fruit cake! I'm sure that Nana forgot to include these tips because baking her fruit cake was like breathing to her. She never had to think about it.

Follow the revised recipe and your fruit cake will be perfect!

Originally posted on Remembering Frances.

Nana was famous for her fruit cake. I know fruit cake gets a bad rap, but you haven't tried Nana's. It is light and airy and quite simply heaven in a bread pan. I knew I was grown up the first time Nana sent me my very own fruit cake, in December 1993, the first Christmas I was in Washington, D.C. But 6 years later, in December 1999, Nana trusted me with her fruit cake recipe was the year I knew I was an adult.

Nana baked her last fruit cake in January 2006. David and I spent a week in Florida and after church on Sunday, Mom, Nana and I made Nana's fruit cake. I savored the fruit cakes we made that January, each year having just a little, so that the first Christmas Nana wasn't with us anymore, she'd still be with us. I still have part of one fruitcake that I guess we'll finish this Christmas.

I'll be making Nana's White Fruit Cake this Christmas on my own, for the first time, and sharing it with my friends and loved ones. I'll stick to her recipe exactly, except that my cakes will probably also include a few tears. They'll be tears of both joy and sadness. Joy because of all the wonderful memories I have around Nana's Fruit Cake and Christmas and sadness because it's the first Christmas without Nana.

I don't know the origin of Nana's fruit cake recipe. I've always just thought of it as Nana's White Fruit Cake, so that's how I titled it.

Today, I'm happy to share Nana's recipe with you. I thought about keeping it a secret, but that isn't Nana's way. She'd want to know you enjoyed it too.

NOTE: This is Nana's typed out recipe. All of the notes and verbiage are hers. I didn't change a thing. I think using the recipe the way she thought of it and in her sweet words makes it better.

Nana's White Fruit Cake

1 lb pecans
1 lb candied cherries (red and green mix)
1 lb candied pineapple
6 egg whites
3/4 lb butter (3 sticks)
2 cups sugar
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup whiskey (I use Jim Beam Bourbon)
4 cups plain flour (sifted) - does not need sifting these days as flour is very fine and soft.
2 tsp baking powder

Day before you bake I cut my pineapple and cherries in halves. I think this makes slicing easier and prettier. Then chop pecans. Can use scissors to cut in half. DO NOT USE THE PRE-MIXED CUT FRUIT THAT YOU CAN BUY BECAUSE IT'S NOT CHERRIES, IT'S A BUNCH OF ORANGE RINDS AND OTHER STUFF. (JLG Note: I learned this lesson the hard way.)

You will need a mixing bowl, one glass bowl to beat egg whites and a big bowl to put pecans and fruit in. You will save about a cup of flour to pour over fruit and pecans so they will not go to bottom of pan when cooking, this is called dredging with flour.

1. In the largest bowl, pour 1 cup of flour over the fruit and pecans and stir. It's easiest to do this with your hands. Set aside.
2. In a glass bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
3. In a third bowl, mix remaining 6 ingredients in order (butter, sugar, egg yolks, bourbon, flour, & baking powder) one at a time and cream each time.
4. Pour batter over the fruit and pecans and use hands to mix then pour egg whites in and fold into this using hands.

Grease pans and flour sides and bottom, but shake to get all flour out. Then I cut from a brown bag the size of bottom of pan and place in bottom to keep from sticking. This will make 2 regular-size loaf pans and 1 small loaf pan. (JLG NOTE: Parchment paper works too.)

All done, ready to pour into loaf pans and bake. Fill each pan only about 3/4 full.

Place a round cake pan with about 1/2 inch of water on the bottom shelf of the oven. This helps keep the fruitcakes moist while baking for such a long time. You may need to add more water during baking.

START IN A COLD OVEN. Bake about 2 hours or 2 1/4 hours at 240. I just look and feel to see if brown and if cake feels solid. You should use a toothpick to check doneness. (JLG Note: I cooked for 2 hours and wish I'd only baked these for 1 3/4 hours. They're a little more done than I'd like, but still look very good. That may be due to oven variations.)

Remove cakes from loaf pans immediately (no need to let cool) and pat each cake with bourbon (about 1/4 cup for all cakes, not per cake) then wrap air tight in wax paper and then aluminum foil after cakes have cooled. Can open in a couple of weeks and can pour little more liquor if needed. (JLG Note: My mom recommends patting down the fruitcakes with bourbon using your fingers, but I used a pastry brush.)

All ready for Christmas. I just leave in pantry in a plastic sack.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The House That Built My Mom

Originally published on Little Merry Sunshine, August 17, 2010.

Right after Christmas, my Aunt Dixie died. She was Nana's last living sister. It wasn't entirely unexpected; she'd been doing poorly last July at Nana's funeral and pretty much went straight downhill from there.

I'll be honest, Aunt Dixie's death was bittersweet to me. On the one hand, she was the last of Nana's sisters and the last of the Greatest Generation in our family. It would not be an understatement to say she was the matriarch (or maybe more accurate to say she thought she was). Her home in Batesville, Mississippi was the gathering spot for family celebrations, tragedies, and everything in between. On the other hand, she had publicly blamed me for my parents divorce when I was 12 and I'd spent the past 25 years or so staying out of her way. As sad as her passing was, there was part of me that felt relieved and even glad.

Mom and I debated whether or not to make the 10 hour drive to Batesville, Mississippi for Aunt Dixie's funeral, but ultimately decided that we wanted to be there and as a bonus, we'd get to "celebrate" with Christmas with Nana by visiting her grave. I packed a little bite of Nana's fruitcake and one of the Christmas ornaments I'd made for my Nana-themed Christmas tree to leave at Nana's grave and off we went.


Mom was born in Oxford, Mississippi and lived in Batesville until she was 8. Nana, of course, was born and raised in Batesville, as was my grandfather Jesse, who died 10 years before I was born. Nana's sisters Johnnie and Dixie also lived most of their lives in Batesville and their children raised their kids either in Batesville or in a neighboring town. With the exception of my mom's brother Michael and his family, Dave and I were the only ones not raised at least part-time in Batesville.

Until Nana's funeral, it had been 15 years since either Mom or I had been to Batesville and we both knew this would probably be our last trip. For me, this trip was about saying goodbye to Nana in a way I hadn't had time or the emotional ability to do in July. For mom, this trip was about to be about her ability to reconcile her childhood with her present and future.


The day of Aunt Dixie's funeral, Mom and I were up and dressed early with about an hour and a half to spare before we were expected anywhere. Mom wanted to drive around and see some old "landmarks."

First, we drove to the house Nana was raised in. At least four generations of my family have lived in this house. From Big Mama (Nana's mom) to Nana and her sisters Johnnie, Dixie, and Mazie, to all four sisters and their families separately and together, to Johnnie's grandson Robert, many members of our family can count this house as "home" at one point or another. It was part of the family farm, which at some point after Aunt Johnnie's death was sold.

I remember sitting in Aunt Johnnie's kitchen when I was about 6 or 7 and feeling the house shake and hearing the dishes rattle. I turned to my mom and said, "they sure do have low flying airplanes around here," even though we were no where near an airport. As a kid growing up 15 minutes from O'Hare, it was simply the only thing I could imagine would make such a racket. Aunt Johnnie turned to me and in no uncertain terms informed me that it was a freight train and the railroad tracks were 100 yards outside her front door. She then asked my mom what kind of a child she was raising that didn't know the difference between an airplane and a freight train. The thing about Aunt Johnnie was that if you didn't know where you stood with her you were either deaf or you weren't listening.
The house that built Nana. They added on the bathroom located in the left of the picture behind the bush. Before that, they had an outhouse. The railroad tracks are 100 yards to the right of the house as you're looking at it.

Mom wanted me to see her elementary school, Batesville Elementary School, which had also been Nana's elementary school. It's been Batesville's elementary school since 1897 and occupies one entire city block.

Next, we drove by Aunt Dixie's house on Highway 6. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but on the inside, the rooms are elaborately decorated in the Federalist style, or as I affectionately refer to it, Early American Whorehouse. Honestly, I affectionately refer to it that way. In fact, there are some pieces of Nana's furniture that have been in Aunt Dixie's house for years that I'm hoping I can get because I love them. Aunt Dixie also has a huge basement that her late husband, Uncle Happy, built. We used to have the most fun family parties down there. In fact, it was in Aunt Dixie's basement, that Aunt Mazie flashed the entire family one Christmas. But I digress.

When Mom lived in Batesville, her house was located just left of Aunt Dixie's house. After Mom's family moved to Crystal Beach, Florida, they sold the house and it was moved to make way for a strip mall.

As I said, Mom's house was moved about a mile or so from its original location after it was sold. Over the year, Mom has mentioned many times that she has always wanted to go back into the house and see how it looks now. When they moved to Florida in 1956, it was a very sudden move and I don't even think Mom knew they were moving. I've always understood that they went for vacation to visit Mom's godmother and decided to stay. In fact, they left most of their furniture in Batesville because they believed they'd be back, but they never returned.

Because there were cars in the driveway, I pulled into the drive and told Mom to go knock on the door. I can't remember the last time I saw Mom move so fast as she did racing up to that door. A middle-aged woman answered and it only took a second for her to invite Mom inside, while I waited in the car. There was a part of me that wanted to see the house my grandfather built and see where my mom came from, but I knew this was really Mom's journey and worried a stranger wouldn't let two women she didn't know just roam around her house.

Mom returned about 20 minutes later with tales of how nice the woman was and how much of the house was still the same. The bookshelves my grandfather built in Mom's room were still there. The kitchen and the pantry were still the same. The owner, who it turned out was the daughter of the family that purchased the house from Nana and my grandfather, bragged to my mom about how well my grandfather built everything so only minimal work had had to be done over the years.

Getting back in the car, I could see a glow on Mom's face I hadn't seen for years. She was so happy to have been given this gift of visiting her childhood home and the only house she felt like they were a happy family in.

Having been at Mom's house in Batesville, I now have a better appreciation for the old 8mm family movies I found last summer and had converted into DVD. I can better picture these movies being filmed inside Mom's house in Batesville. This is the only video I have of my grandfather. (Get Little Merry Sunshine via email? Click here and go watch the video on Little Merry Sunshine.)

Jessica Gardner from Orange Guest on Vimeo.

Being back in Batesville was not easy. It was an emotional trip, but it was well worth the 20 hours we spent in the car. I don't know if we'll ever go back, so I'm a happy I gave Mom the time with her cousins and the opportunity to step back in time in her old home.


A few months later, I first heard the Miranda Lambert song, The House That Built Me, and it brought tears to my eyes as it took me back to that day in Batesville with Mom.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Nana Died Today - 1 Year Later

Originally posted on Little Merry Sunshine on July 12, 2010.

Today is the one year anniversary of Nana's death.

I'm honestly at a loss as to how to put into words just how much I still miss her. So often I want to pick up the phone and call her to tell her some funny story or just hear her voice and it's not until I get half done dialing her number that I remember I can't. I miss holding her small hands, hearing her call me her "dear Jessica" and reminding me that I'm her favorite granddaughter (I'm her only granddaughter, but that never mattered). I miss her southern drawl and the weekly letters that were often nothing more than newspaper clippings with Post-It Notes she thought I'd find interesting. And God knows I miss her fruitcake.

At some point in the last year, the daily tears stopped and my desire to get out of bed in the morning came back.

In the past year, I've found myself doing many things that remind me of her. For example, I wash dishes by hand far more than I used to. Nana never owned a dish washer and even when she'd come to visit, she would insist on hand washing the dishes rather than load the dishwasher. I have no idea what kind of dishwashing soap she used, but something about the lavender scented Palmolive makes it seem as though she's standing right next to me at the sink.

Yes, I miss her immensely, but she lived a great life and I'm grateful to have had my Nana for just a few days short of 93 years (well, I guess I only had her for just over 38 years, but you know what I'm saying). I'm not exactly sure how I'll honor her today, but rest assured, I'll find a few moments of silence to have a chat with her and let her know what I've been up to. And I'll probably shed a tear or two.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Even Now Nana Continues to Surprise Me

Originally published on Little Merry Sunshine on May 12, 2010.

I've never really been certain that Nana was proud of me, even though she always said she was. Growing up, all she wanted was for me to be a teacher. Although she'd been awarded a full college scholarship, Nana didn't go to college because she felt it was more important to go to work and help her family survive during the Depression. My mom's generation was the first in her family to go to college and all the women studied to become teachers, including my mom. Being was a teacher was the acceptable profession for a woman and most of my female cousins in my generation became teachers.

There's nothing wrong with being a teacher. In fact, I think it's one of the most noble and important professions in the world, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. My lifelong dream was to be a lawyer.

My dream of becoming a lawyer was the subject of many debates and tense conversations as I moved through high school and college. It intensified when I graduated without a job (it was 1993 and almost no one had a job upon graduation). Even after I was securely settled in Washington, DC and was studying for the LSAT, she would still encourage me to become a teacher.

Not only didn't I become a teacher, but I changed my mind and didn't become a lawyer either. Plus, she never saw me get married and give her great-grandchildren. I truly believed I'd failed in her eyes . . . until today.

As I was going through her things this afternoon, I came across two items that brought tears to my eyes. I found a clear plastic page protector filled with memorabilia - ticket stubs, Congressional passes, the playbill from "The Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre, brochures from Monticello, Mt. Vernon, and the White House, and the program from Christmas Eve services at the National Cathedral - from her visit to DC over Christmas 1995. That trip was one of my happiest memories of Nana. I had planned the whole trip to the minute and then had a wrench thrown in my plans when the Government shut down during a budget crisis, but we still had a great time, even without the highly anticipated trip to watch Congress in action. A few minutes later, I found an envelope from me with the Hogan & Hartson logo and address on it. Inside was a whole bunch of return address labels she'd cut off of letters I sent her from Hogan. My eyes welled up with tears and I was speechless.

It turns out I was wrong. Finding these items that aren't worth anything monetarily meant the world to me. I now know definitively that she was proud of me. Better late than never.

A Lifetime of Dreams

Originally published on Little Merry Sunshine on May 11, 2010.

As I go through the process of cleaning out Nana's house, I look around at all the stuff that's accumulated during her almost 93 years and I think about the meaning of it all. On one level, it's all stuff. Some of it has some financial worth, but most of it can only be valued in sentiment. But on another level, all the stuff she's collected represents her lifetime of dreams. Dreams not only for herself, but also for her children and grandchildren.

I've looked through old photo albums and scrapbooks and seen her pride in my mom's and uncle's accomplishments. I've read through the letters she sent to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson after my grandfather died in 1961 attempting to get a mistake about my grandfather's VA benefits (and subsequent benefits for Nana) corrected. I've read letters she wrote to my mom and uncle later in life telling them of her unconditional love and letters she wrote to Dave and me telling us how proud she was of our accomplishments and her hopes for us. I've flipped through the well-worn pages of her Bible knowing that she turned to it nightly for comfort, inspiration, and life's answers. I've found boxes of my baby clothes (many of which she made)she carefully preserved in hopes my daughter would wear them someday. I found the blanket that kept me warm in my crib when I first came home from the hospital (and initially tossed it in the charity box, but then got sentimental and saved it). I've walked through her childhood in Mississippi with her sisters through pictures and diaries. The house itself is the culmination of a lifelong dream. She built it in 1969 from her life savings. The stories I've heard say she would come over after work once the frame was built and hang sheets where she wanted the internal walls to be located. There probably weren't too many other women who were designing and building their own homes. I've held the dress she wore to my parents' wedding in 1970 in awe of just how exquisite it was. She was so proud to walk her daughter down the aisle. I found a silk sari a friend had custom made for Nana in Fiji. Mom didn't even know of its existence. I also found half a dozen quilts Nana hand sewed and felt the care, hope and love she sewed into each stitch.

Sure, it's just stuff, but it all represents a life well lived. She may not have been rich in a financial sense, but she lived life on her terms with love and a never-ending faith in everyone and achieved most, if not all, of her dreams. That makes her wealthy in my book. I hope that when I pass away, whomever is charged with dividing up my personal belongings can say that about me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Think Nana Visited Me Last Night

Originally published on Little Merry Sunshine, March 19, 2010.

As I type this, my fingers are trembling.

About 10:15 this morning, I opened my front door to check out the snow. Yes, snow. It was almost 70 the last few days and this morning it's snowing. And Mother Nature is messing with my head with a migraine today. Damn, her. But I digress.

Anyway, I opened my front door. The grass is covered with snow. The driveway and walkway to the front door are soaking wet. Snow is flying around. The tree branches are snow covered. I'd say it was pretty, but it's the first day of SPRING. Snow in the Spring is not pretty.

Sitting on the wet ground at my front door was a picture. A picture of Mom, Nana, and me. In fact, it was this picture:
One of my absolute favorite pictures of us. I love the smile on Nana's face. I love how genuinely happy she looks. I love how healthy she looks. She was in the hospital for knee replacement surgery and this must have been a few days after the surgery when she was finally feeling like herself again. Notice the lipstick she's wearing. It was her belief that no matter what else was going on in the world, as long as she was wearing lipstick, everything was okay. And people wonder where I get this belief from.

The picture sitting on the ground had been on my Christmas tree, as evidenced from the hole punched in the corner, but the ribbon was missing. Not torn out, just missing. My 2009 Christmas tree was a memorial to Nana and featured about 3 dozen pictures of Nana along with snowflakes she'd crocheted, but it was a fake tree, so I'm not sure how the picture ended up outside when I put the tree away. There were no water stains on the picture from months outside and the picture was completely dry, which was odd since it was laying on the very wet ground and it was snowing. Aside from a little dirt, the picture was in perfect condition.

I'm not sure where this picture came from, but I dreamt about Nana last night. Although I don't remember the details, I do remember she was visiting me here in my dream. And she was the way I remember her. Smiling. No gray hair (seriously, when she died at age 93, she had almost no gray hair and I hope that bodes well for me). Wearing lipstick.

When I woke this morning, I had a tough few moments deciding if my dream was real or a dream. I wanted it to be real because I miss her so much. I often think about if I just had 5 more minutes with Nana how I would spend it. I'd have so many questions I'd want answers to. So many things I would love to tell her.

Maybe my dream wasn't really a dream, but was reality. Maybe she actually visited me and left the picture, so I'd know it was real and not a dream. Maybe the reason I overslept and have a migraine was so I wouldn't rush out of the house through the garage early this morning and miss the gift she left me. Maybe.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Customer Service Then and Now

Originally posted on Little Merry Sunshine, January 6, 2010.

Anyone who deals with the public is in customer service. I don't care if the position is janitor. If someone deals with the public, then they are in customer service. And even if their position doesn't explicitly deal with the public, but they happen to run into a customer of their company, they are now in customer service.

Nana worked in customer service for 40 years for what is now Bank of America (it started as Ellis National bank, then it became NCNB, then NationsBank and now it's Bank of America). She started out as a teller and through hard work over the years, she was promoted to Vice President of the Tarpon Springs, FL branch. Every step of the way, she dealt with the public. And every single day, she loved helping her customers. Whether it was helping a customer buy a $50 savings bond, open a checking account, or helping them with bigger issues, she loved helping people. She believed it was an honor to be able to serve people and knowing her the way I did, I can say with absolute certainty that she never once uttered the words "it's not my job."

One time, an elderly woman Nana had known for many years came into the bank with a man wanting to empty out her account in cash. Nana was with another customer, but overheard the woman telling another employee of her desire. Not recognizing the man and knowing the woman's family well , Nana called the other employee over and told her to stall the woman until Nana was finished with her customer. When Nana finished helping the first customer, she called the son of the elderly woman to make sure this was legitimate. It turned out the woman was being scammed by someone with less than scrupulous desires and because of Nana's intervention this was prevented.

I remember another incident a few months after she retired. The phone rang one day and it was her former boss. It seemed that he had a rather prominent (read: wealthy) customer in front of him who was upset with something the bank had done and was prepared to withdraw all his funds from the bank. The bank manager apologized for the error and tried in vain to talk the customer down. Finally, he asked the customer if there was anything he could do to keep his business. The customer responded that the only person who could convince him that this wouldn't happen again was Frances Paulk, even though she had nothing to do with the problem he was experiencing with the bank. Nana was only asked to speak to the customer on the phone, but she had known him for years and so she got in the car and drove to the bank to meet with him and reassure him that the issue would be resolved in his favor and would never happen again. Nana kept this man's accounts with the bank.

Her outstanding customer service was rewarded many times over; she won many awards from the bank for her superior service and even won the "Courtesy Award" given by the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce. Customers waited in line to be helped by Nana even when other bank employees were available and could assist them. She had customers who were loyal to her for all of those 40 years. On her last day at NationsBank, customers showered her with flowers and gifts to thank her for all that she had done for them over the years. They came in person to thank her for her service and to tell her how much she had helped them. If they couldn't come in person, they sent letters and cards. In fact, there are two drawers full of letters from customers (or their family members) written over 40 years thanking her for her service to them and the way she especially helped to protect her elderly customers.

At her visitation and funeral in July, I can't begin to count the people who came up to me with stories of how Nana had helped them and shown them how to balance their checkbook or explained the benefits of CDs over a passbook savings account to give them the best interest rate. Her service was based on a selfless desire to help others be their best. Of course, she also worked during a time when her paycheck wasn't based on how many CDs she sold or how much she "up sold" people, so they always knew that whatever she told them was in their best interest and had nothing to do with her own best interest.

Contrast that to the customer service of today.

Mom and I had to visit a large national bank today. While we were waiting for assistance, a woman who appeared to be in her late-60s or so asked the bank manager if this bank had passbook savings accounts. He said no. She then volunteered that a local community bank did. He again replied that they didn't have them. She said she understood, but that she wanted a passbook savings account (you remember the "old fashioned" kind where you had a book like a checkbook register and the bank would imprint your activity in it every time you came to the bank) and would be switching to their smaller competitor for this service. The manager's only response was okay. He did not attempt to help the woman who was clearly a customer with services the bank offered or even ask her questions about her perceived benefits of a passbook savings account. He simply said okay and let the woman and her business walk out the door.

I wish we could get back to a time when companies cared about their customers and not just about the money they could bring in. When a verbal commitment meant action would be taken or that a promise was sealed. When businesses valued their customers and would not be so willing to just let them walk out the door unhappy.

What I know for sure is that when Nana first went to work in the banking industry, her bank was a small community bank because that's all that existed in 1954. Up until the late-1990s, her bank had that community feel, even though they were nationwide. Or maybe it was just my perception because I could pick up the phone and call any branch, say I was her granddaughter and have the red carpet rolled out for me.

I think that the solution for this problem is simple: Patronize only locally-owned, small businesses whenever possible. Reward businesses that provide superior customer service with more business. Say thank you for outstanding service. Go up the chain of command and not only thank the employee, but praise that person to his or her manager.

As for myself, as a business owner, I am committing myself to upping my own customer service and loyalty to my customers in 2010.