This morning — I’m writing the week before Christmas, I mailed off my gifts to kith and ken. Every package contained food, and each box carried a gift of sorts from my mother’s mother: Bourbon Cake. My grandmother, Mummo, is long dead but she returns to life, or at least memory, each Christmas.
My most fond memories of Christmas occurred Thanksgiving weekend when my mother made Mummo’s Bourbon Cake and my father made Eggnog. There was a great flurry of activity, having nothing to with gifts (or, at least, purchased gifts) but centered around cooking in preparation for Christmas. And then we waited, with the occasional batch of cookies or a gingerbread house, to tide us over until the cake and nog were fully ripe and properly aged. As children we only got a taste of each — a sample of an adult Christmas — but all the more special for that.
I asked a friend about her childhood Christmas traditions and at first she drew a blank, but with a little coaxing, her Italian heritage showed up. Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve always included fish, sometimes, when finances were short, it was only linguine with shrimp. When times were good it might be linguine with mussels, a lobster course, and perhaps some poached sea bass.
In Egypt, where I lived for a time, the primary Christian sect known as Copts mark the holiday with a fast, closely related to the Moslem Ramadan fast and Catholic Lent, leading up to Advent on January 6th. Fasting is also a way of celebrating food, particularly when the end of the fast is marked by a feast, as many religious rituals do. The Copts also ackowledge the Christmas legend with a special bread named Qurban marked with a cross surrounded by 12 dots.
In England, goose is traditional at Christmas in much the same way turkey is at our Thanksgiving. According to cookbook author and NPR contributor Bonny North: “The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was eating goose — a favorite of hers — when she learned that her Navy had defeated the Spanish Armada in1588. She ordered that goose be served every Michaelmas (September 29) thereafter in honor of the victory.”
My mother continued to make bourbon cake every year long after my siblings and I had left home. She would make small cakes in little aluminum loaf pans to send those who wouldn’t be coming home for the holiday, but they were only a memory of the larger “real” cakes she made in her old aluminum tube pan. Eventually she quit making the cakes at all as she aged and arthritis and weakening arm strength took their tolls. But since I’ve never been one to turn down kitchen gear, I ended up with the tube pan. Of course, after a couple of years of doing without bourbon cake, I started making it myself and mailing slabs of it to my siblings and parents.
This is a dense heavy pound cake that requires long slow cooking and that absorbs the weekly dose of bourbon slowly over, ideally, four weeks. So although the small loaf cakes appear to be a more elegant gift, they can’t compare to the elegant flavor and careful nourishment a slice of the large cake offers. So I make a big cake and send slabs of it. It’s not a pretty gift, stuffed in a zippered plastic bag with the recipients name scrawled on the white patch. But this gift is a blessing, a tradition passed down from mother to mother and, now, to son
My mother doesn’t know where her mother got the recipe, but given that her mother was originally from Kentucky, it may have deeper roots than we know of. I’d like to think so, but it doesn’t really matter. For now I keep the flame.
Editors Note of Enthusiasm: Kevin’s Bourbon cake is very good. Particularly with peach ice cream.