Bremer Klaben, the Grandmother to My Grandma’s Poor Man’s Fruitcake.
Now that the holidays are over, I just received my true Christmas gift. After about a month of searching for one of my paternal Grandmother’s Christmas Fruitcake recipes, I finally found it in the most unusual place – nestled inside my Mom’s family recipe box. This should be a lesson to all recipe archeologists – look everywhere, including the most unlikely places for that lost recipe! You might ask why all this fuss over fruitcake? Doesn’t fruitcake have the worst reputation of all holiday sweets? Aren’t there a growing number of fruitcake tosses popping up across the country to help people dispose of them? Well, yes, but for this recipe it was as much the family history as the cake itself that I was after.
I had originally thought it was from the Crisco Cookbook or the locally made Rheinstrom candied fruit package, because we found out that a lot of Grandma’s recipes came from the inside of product packages. Both of these particular recipes had come from the Food Editor of the Ladies Home Journal in the 1920s. She became the sort of recipes spokeswoman for a lot of national brands. P& G used her recipes to promote their new Crisco product, as did Rheinstrom to promote their candied fruits during Prohibition, when they couldn’t legally sell their whiskey. Her chocolate cake, for example, was from the Hershey’s cocoa tin and her wonderful lasagna, from the Creamette noodle package. I had also found my paternal grandma’s cole slaw recipe in an unlikely place – my maternal grandma’s recipe box. The recipe had the notation “Mrs. Woellert’s – Very good,” which was highly unlikely for my maternal grandmother to cede cooking prowess. One of my male cousins still makes Grandma’s cole slaw for family functions.
Dad had always called this recipe Poor Man’s Fruitcake, but the Crisco recipe did not have that title. There was a very high end version in the Crisco cookbook that included a lot of candied fruit and then one that was a bit simpler. I had reached out to my cousin Nancy, whose siblings had saved and continue to make some of Grandma’s recipes to see if they had it, but they did not. Then I had heard one of my second cousins had my Aunt Betty’s recipe box. Aunt Betty was Grandma’s only daughter, so I thought if anyone would have some of Grandma’s recipes it would be her. I reached out to that cousin with no success.
Inadvertently Mom had copied the recipe down from my Grandmother, probably early on in my parents’ marriage because my father and all of his siblings really liked her fruitcake. But this was apparently one of Grandma’s signature holiday treats and so when she was making it, Mom never had to. As my grandparents aged and stopped hosting the family holiday parties, the baking of the fruitcake went into hiatus, and no one took up the mantle. This is the natural changing of family traditions and unfortunately how recipes get lost to the ages. Mom had forgot that she had copied the recipe so many years ago, and luckily for us, my nosiness found it nestled and hidden in between other recipes.
So I was absolutely thrilled to find Grandma’s recipe for Poor Man’s Fruitcake. I had assumed that maybe it didn’t use as many eggs or expensive spices like nutmeg or even alcohol. But the title came from that fact that it didn’t contain the expensive candied cherries, citron, or apricot of other fruitcakes. It only contained raisins and walnuts. And, it was not sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.
It occurred to me that this poor man’s fruitcake is similar to the North German klaben – the version of stollen from Bremen that has only raisins and nuts, and is not dusted in confectioners’ sugar or wrapped in marzipan. In Germany there are nicknames for Christmas Stollen with raisins – they are either whispering or screaming stollens. Whispering stollens – like the Klaben – are ones that contain so many raisins and they are so close together that they only need to whisper to each other. Then there are the screaming stollens – like the Dresdener stollen – with only a few raisins, because other candied fruits are included, so they must yell to each other to be heard. A recent radio episode of a holiday special Travel with Rick Steves articulated this difference.
Very soon after their marriage in the early 1920s, my paternal grandparents moved in with my widowed Great Grandfather, whose family had immigrated from the area of Northern Germany just to the east of Bremen – the Duchy of Mecklenburg – which was home to the Klaben – Germany’s whispering raisin holiday fruitcake. She was tasked with cooking to my great grandfather’s north German tastes, so maybe this recipe came from his family and was based on the Klaben with which they were familiar in Mecklenburg. Maybe he had asked her to make this family cake for him at Christmas and she obliged. Apparently Great Grandpa raved about Grandma’s other dishes like her barley soup and her goetta to the neighbors in Cumminsville. The Poor Man’s Fruitcake might have been like the German eggnog or eierliquor recipe my grandfather made at Christmas.
So had I discovered a recipe that had come over on the boat with my ancestors? Who changed the name from Klaben to Poor Man’s Fruitcake? Did Great Grandma teach my Grandma to make it before she passed? Like much recipe archealogy, it’s hard to say, but I’d like to think that Grandma’s rediscovered Poor Man’s fruitcake descends from the Bremen Klaben. And now I can make it next year for the family get together. too, which descended from his father and grandfather.