Sunday was our Christmas Party @HomeCrazzyHome. It is actually not as big a deal as Thanksgiving or Halloween. I only made wraps, snacks, and ordered pizza for the little humans.
Believe it or not, Christmas is a bit of a let-down here. It is only the three of us, and perhaps PanKwake’s dad. So, no big cooking or anything. Just presents.
I actually end up focusing more on the coming year. Planning, organizing, and cleaning. This year especially, as 2020 is the beginning of a new era for us. Alan is retiring. December 31st is is his last day. So, we need to decide what we want to do with the rest of our lives, together. And, of course, we have a wedding to plan.
But it is not just looking forward, it is looking back as well. And for this Christmas party, I did that in real way. I made my Nanny’s jam cake.
What is jam cake, you ask?
There is a whole story behind it. I grew up poor. We lived in a mill village, dozens, a hundred or so houses that the textile company had built around its factory for the workers. I was raised by my great-grandmother, my Nanny. My great-grandfather died when my Nanny was in her early forties. She never remarried or even dated as far as we can tell.
My grandmother took the loss of her father when she was just twelve particularly hard. She became the first rebel in our family, a tradition that I proudly carry on. She gave birth to my mother when she was fourteen and had two other daughters in the next twelve years. She was ‘married’ five times. I use quotes because other than the last one, there is no paperwork for any of the others. So, whether or not she actually married her daughter’s fathers is highly questionable. Actually, whether or not the men she named were the real fathers is as well.
My mother had me when she was nineteen. Another shotgun wedding. My sperm donor left when I was two-and-a-half to get a pack of cigarettes and I have seen him four times in fifty years. Each worse than the last. My mother had me and my brother to support. So, she worked while Nanny raised us.
Thus Christmas was a struggle, as it always is when you are poor. But one thing I remember is Nanny always had to have her jam cake every Christmas. Back to that question, what is jam cake?
It is cake made with blackberry jam. Homemade blackberry jam. With blackberries that my aunt and/or I picked from along the train tracks.
I have vague memories of the first time I was allowed to go picking blackberries with my aunt. She was just six years older than I am. But in her early teens, I idolized her. She, on the other hand, resented me. Hated and deplored? Always has. The feeling became mutual.
When Nanny forced her to take me with her and her cool teen friends, she always found some way to torture me. Like the time she held me by my ankles off the side of a bridge and threatened to drop me into the creek below. I am frightened of heights to this day.
That first time that she was made to take me blackberry picking was no different. The easiest access to the woods around the train racks was just passed an old Native American burial mound. It sat right in the middle of the road. They were forced to build around it. Until I moved to the UK, that was the only ’roundabout’ I had ever seen.
No one knew the full story of that grave, or at least us kids didn’t. But its limestone cover had been cracked when a drunk, not expecting a roundabout, ran over it. Of course, my aunt took this opportunity when there was no adult around, and she wanted to prove how cool she was to her friends, to frighten me. She dragged me up that mound which was no more than eight or nine feet in diameter and about four or five feet high. She forced my head down to look in the open grave. I don’t remember seeing anything other than weeds before I shut my eyes and started to cry.
The other thing I remember about picking blackberries for Nanny’s jam was chiggers. If you are not familiar with what a chigger is, then lucky you, google it. I wish I had not. I am itching just at the memory of them. If you cannot be bothered to google it, then the simplest explanation is to think mosquito on steroids. Oh, those things itch.
And there was no way to pick those blackberries without getting chiggers. Of course, then I was further tortured with the ‘cure,’ in our family that meant painting each bite with nail polish. They always seemed to bite me around my waist, too.
Of course, once we brought the blackberries home, Nanny would wash them. Then boil them with some sugar. And finally can them in the big pressure cooker. They would then be put up for spreading on morning toast and, of course, jam cake at Christmas time.
I have long since lost the recipe for jam cake, if I ever had it. But the cake itself was nothing special. Just your basic batter of butter, eggs, sugar, milk, and flour with the addition of that blackberry jam. Nanny made Pound Cakes often in the deep, round Angel cake pan. But this was the one cake that made in layers. Three to four (or more) of them.
What made the cake special was the ‘icing.’ If you could call it that. It was not really icing, just melted butter and sweetened condensed milk. And it was not spread on top like icing. Instead, you poked holes in each individual layer with a fork. Then you poured the mixture over that layer, allowing it to soak in before adding the next layer and repeating the process.
I was not sure how my British friends would like something so sweet. Alan refused to even try it. But at least a couple of them seemed to enjoy it. Will I make it again next year? Will this become a Christmas tradition for me as it was Nanny? Probably not. I did not particularly like it. The cake was fine but I don’t like biting into the seeds.
I just needed to make it this year. To honor my roots, keep something alive, and think of Nanny. I might make it again in a few years for that same reason. But I think it says more about me growing older, needing to reconnect to lost history than it does a love of jam cake.
Do you have Christmas traditions like that? Things that you want to keep alive in your heart or mind, and perhaps even share with future generations…or your Crazzy friends on the internet.
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