Christmas cakes in art and war

Christmas cakeSome time in April or May each year, The Times of London publishes a short letter which runs something like this: 'Last Saturday, I heard my first cuckoo. Is this a record? Yours T. C. Coltsbridge (Maj, ret).' It is a sign that the blessed rugger season is coming to its Northern close and the retired major can look forward to pleasant months of gin and cricket.

In late September each year, when all the football excitement has died down in this country, I am tempted to write a similar letter to a prestige chronicle: 'Last night, my wife baked our Christmas cake. Is this a record?' Unfortunately, Australia suffers from a dearth of the kind of journal which might publish such homely musings. Besides, in these sensitive times, a letter of that type could easily be considered sexist.

It is true however that in our house, we are ahead of the post office and the large emporiums in our anticipation of Christmas. There is early shopping for raisins and sultanas, peel and glacé cherries, almonds and exotic spices. Then on a Saturday night, I am shifted to the far end of the dining room table to finish the crossword while a work of art is being prepared.

A dog-eared recipe book is retrieved from hibernation, and pages, stuck together by last year's dough, are laid open. In fact the recipe is largely irrelevant. It is like modern portraiture. If you were to ask five different artists to paint a portrait of one of Australia's eminently paintable politicians — Julia Gillard say, or Wilson Tuckey — you would not expect the same product from any two of them. Likewise with a Christmas cake.

For let there be no mistake, we are here talking about a Work of Art, a statement of the creator's individuality, a window into the soul. If you ever hear a House Manager admit that her neighbour has made a better Christmas cake, write it down immediately, together with the time and place and the names of witnesses, and get it signed by your parish priest or a member of the Greens. It is the kind of thing that might be useful in the early stages of a canonisation process.

I am grateful for the crossword — 'sheep providing tufty wool', five letters, starts with 'f'.' I am not required to speak. An occasional 'Yes dear' is all that is needed. The word 'batter', used as a noun, comes up occasionally and it evokes pleasant thoughts of where I would like to be.

In due course, all the ingredients have been combined and it is necessary to add a little spirits. In vain, I try to pass off some cheap Scotch or local brandy, but there is an insistence on raiding my dwindling stock of single malt. Some further beating and then the soggy mess is transferred to a baking tin, lined with layers of greaseproof paper.

For four hours a heavenly aroma pervades the house as the cake slowly bakes. I wonder why those companies that invest money selling air fresheners based on spring flowers or pine cones have never tried an aroma of baking Christmas cake.

The Bill keeps being interrupted by statements like 'I mustn't forget the cake' or 'I wonder if I used enough whiskey' and House Manager behaves like an expectant father. There, you see: I'm not sexist.

Finally, the masterpiece is removed and presented for my admiration. Since I have to live in the same house as its creator, I duly admire it and throw in a few comments about how one could not find such a superb creation even in the most haute of cuisineries.

I don't get to sample the cake until the afternoon of Christmas Day. By then, I will have had too much rich food to give an opinion, but will do my best impersonation of a race caller in the final furlong, when they had furlongs.

In the days after Christmas, I will get little of the prized cake. It will be diligently kept for seasonal visitors and I will be lucky to get even the most sacrificial of portions. When we visit friends, I expect to fare better, being given a sufficiently large piece by our hostess to be able to describe it on the way home as either too wet or too dry or too rich or too dark. Other descriptions will not be tolerated.

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008. 

Topic tags: frank o'shea, christmas cake



submit a comment

Existing comments

Everything Frank writes is worth reading for style and for content. This is really top-shelf.
Jim Jones | 16 December 2009

Oh, how disappointing to read in Eureka Street the sentence, 'Besides, in these sensitive times, a letter of that type could easily be considered sexist.' Good for Mr O'Shea and his wife who have a certain kind of relationship (something like that of my own parents) that encourages the affectionate mocking of the fusspot kitchen-bound wife by the ostensibly intellectually superior husband. But in Eureka Street? I thought this magazine was better than that.
Bill | 16 December 2009

For this tribute, we thank
Our friend Mr Frank,
And with gratitude take
That ambrosial cake.
In this land where no snow flies,
On our letters page, know-alls
Report the first blowflies
(Or sometimes first koels),
And a shepherd’s warm sock
Would be made from – yes! – flock.
DavidB | 16 December 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up