You Can’t Beat a Butter Batter

Fruit cake, rich, heavy, moist, in childhood the natural partner of a glass of icy-cold-milk-not-boiled-please-Mum, an entire fruit cake became my own every January eighth – my birthday cake, dating from around the time of my maybe fifteenth birthday, as I recall – Mum baked it, back in the butter days when doctors hadn’t discovered her soaring cholesterol, (we had our good times, we had our butter times), and Mum, always a superlative baker (who never essayed a sponge cake – ‘I can’t bake a sponge cake’) who kept two tins endlessly plenished with biscuits, biscuits Anzac, biscuits corn-flake, jam biscuits, biscuits nameless now in my aged forgettings; and cakes, always one waiting and ready for the nourishing of children, four of us, four who each secretly knew that he or she was the most loved of all by this mother who would say, in her much later years, “I never achieved much in my life, but I have four children who love me and that is enough”, and enough it was, especially as fruit cake, moist, heavy, from the deep delved earth, was never even my favourite, so many, so various and numberless and so rich and so high, light, soft, moist and sweet and buttery were all of them, but somehow, early one January, Mum must have asked, “What cake would you like for your birthday, darling?”, and I must have replied – thinking of how that uncooked cake batter, all floury and viscous with brown sugar and fruits in Rhine Castle kosher muscat wine, how much better raw in the mixing bowl than after baking three hours in the slow not-too-hot oven, how this batter beat all other raw cake batters by a rich mile – “Fruit cake, please Mum”, and Mum would have decided it was my favourite, and every eighth of January thereafter she presented me with a whole one, until that year, freshly married, freshly graduated, doing my first locum in a small town in Tasmania in January, I knew this would be the first year I’d go cakeless, that I’d graduated from that child nurturing, and my darling bride, a neophyte cook who would go on to surpass all before her as a chef, had the wisdom and the discretion not to venture into the cuisine where the mother-in-law shone and the cakes of breastmilk affection preceded her, so Annette forebore and the pampered young groom understood an end had come, but a day or two before the eighth, a parcel arrived in the post among all the letters from drug companies, the parcel wrapped in brown paper – my parents never threw out brown paper or string, they never forgot the Great Depression when, as I imagined it, there came to pass the World Crisis of No String and no Brown Paper – that parcel heavy, and under the brown paper a container unyielding to my fingers, and on the brown paper and addressed in Mum’s singular and elegantly jerky hand to “Dr. Howard Goldenberg, The Surgery, Deloraine, Tasmania,” and the address incomplete, the sort of address that destined your mail for the Dead Letter Office, but in the margin Mum’s plea:
“Mr Postie, It’s his birthday cake, please try to get it to him by the eighth: This Way Up”, and inside the paper was a cake tin and inside the cake tin was the birthday cake, fruit cake, still so good with a glass-of-icy-cold-milk-not-boiled, a single slice a gobstopper, but who ever stopped at a single slice?, not me, and so the January cakes came and came, butterless now in the puritanical regime imposed by philistine doctors, the cakes still came, until the strokes came, Mum’s left hand forgetting its cunning and the birthday cakes would surely stop now, but they didn’t, because Dad, himself a cook of meat and fish who never baked a cake in his life, saying ‘I can’t bake,” Dad stepped forward and made the annual fruit cake to Mum’s recipe, under Mum’s direction, and she presented it to a son expecting nothing this year or ever again, just grateful that Mum was still alive and loving and playful, and she not the least interested in the facts of disability, and so the cakes came and came until Dad went, and here I was, a boy of fifty-seven-and-a-half years who knew his fruitcake days were over; but no they were not, for there existed Mum’s firstborn, Dennis, born with butter in his mouth, a cook who believed in fat and cream and sugar and starch and no self control and no moderation especially in helping our Mum and never more than in celebrating his younger brother, the brother whom he might reasonably have seen as his supplanter, his usurper, but no, Dennis never felt those things, writing one January eighth, “Howard, I think God must be proud of you”, and now the cakes kept coming, butter reinstated, for there were never thoughts of tomorrow with Dennis, only of the abundant now and now was Howard’s birthday and it was his joy to help Mum make cake for her boy, and then, at the age of sixty-three Dennis underwent surgery and died and the cakes finally stopped…but no they didn’t, because Mum recruited her east-european carers, masters of the cuisine of heavy stodge, as her new sous chefs and she directed as they baked my fruit cakes – until the time Mum died and that would have been the end of the fruitcakes… except Mum left one granddaughter who loves baking as much as she loves her father; and that person is my youngest daughter Naomi, a devotee of the Creed of Cholesterol; devoutly does she mix bright-yolk eggs with buttery batter for a father whose januation ever is blessed with food-as-love, and so may it continue until I come to my Full Stop.

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