The onetime president of the National Fruitcake Makers Association — yes, there actually was such a thing — is making Happy Cakes in a better place now.
Actually, he’s been making them there for some time. Dick Rodby — past president of the defunct fruitcake makers association, director emeritus of the Arizona Memorial Foundation and creator of the Hawaiian Happy Cake — passed away at his home in Hawaii in 2012.
I discovered his obituary online while trying to come up with an idea for a Christmas column. It had been years since I’d heard from him, and I wondered what had happened to my old friend the Happy Cake maker.
I know — nobody is supposed to like fruitcake, let alone admit to it. Fruitcake has become the universal butt of Christmas jokes. People use it as doorstops, shoot it out of cannons. Fruitcake fusillades became so popular at one point that local practitioners made the news, chortling with glee as they fired flaming fruitcakes into the night sky at Quarry View Park.
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But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when fruitcake was actually respectable.
Which brings me back to the Happy Cake maker. We became friends following a column I wrote in defense of fruitcake. Former Statesman columnist Judy Steele and I had a friendly feud over fruitcake in our columns. Hers was anti-fruitcake; mine was pro-fruitcake. Rodby, fruitcake’s No. 1 cheerleader, ended up with a copy of mine and reprinted it in his newsletter. He had relatives in Boise, who had sent him the column, and whenever he came to town to visit them we’d meet for lunch or coffee. We became friends through a mutual love of fruitcake.
Fruitcake wasn’t merely his passion; it was his business, or at least a good part of it. He managed a rural Hawaiian restaurant, described in his obituary as “a refuge where time stood still and the gracious Aloha of old Hawaii resided.” The Kemoo Farm Restaurant was known for, among other things, Hawaiian Happy Cake.
He sent one of them to me at Christmastime for several years. Happy Cakes are a uniquely Hawaiian twist on fruitcake. They’re made with pineapple and macadamia nuts. Think pineapple upside-down cake with nuts and sprinkled with grated coconut. (My wife liked them, and she hates fruitcake.) They’re made with fresh ingredients that, if memory serves, were grown on Rodby’s Kemoo Farm. He invited me to visit there any number of times. Now I’m kicking myself for not taking him up on it.
His love of fruitcake began on Kemoo farm, where he grew up surrounded by tropical fruits. Mine began with my great-grandmother Susie.
Grandma Susie was the kind of grandmother everyone wishes they had. She looked like a Norman Rockwell grandmother — aprons, old-fashioned dresses, a jolly face that belied a hard life. She outlived three husbands and all but one of her children, survived three fires that claimed everything she owned, and somehow remained a cheerful, positive person, admired by all who knew her.
Her culinary skills were good enough to get her a job running the kitchen at what was then known as the Old Soldiers Home in what is now Veterans Park. None of the old soldiers were ever known to complain about the cooking.
Her extended Christmas visits were a highlight of the year at our house. They were the happiest time of the year — old-fashioned lights gleaming on an old-fashioned tree, George Melachrino’s “Christmas Joy” album playing on the stereo, the aroma of my mother’s and Grandma Susie’s baking filling every room.
My mother’s specialties were Christmas cookies and fudge. Grandma Susie’s piece de resistance was, of course, fruitcake.
Forget the fruitcake sold in supermarkets, the kind with the jellied candy that everyone loves to hate. This was real, homemade fruitcake, similar in texture to good zucchini bread but with Grandma Susie’s special blend of spices and dried fruit. She may or may not have doused it with rum or brandy. I was too young to care about such things in those days, but it’s a good bet that she did. Good fruitcake needs a dose of Authority, and she was too good a baker not to have known that.
Whatever the ingredients were, the result was almost sinfully delicious, a Christmas confection destined to become a cherished memory. In a perfect world, Grandma Susie would have included the recipe in her will. By now it would be a family treasure, at least at my house.
I thought of her and my late friend Rodby recently while passing a display of fruitcake at Costco. It was a bit of a surprise to see it there. It hasn’t been all that long since fruitcake’s reputation was at such a low ebb that it was almost impossible to find. The memory of asking for it in a store during that dark time and having a smart-mouthed employee shout that “this guy is looking for fruitcake,” as if I’d asked for illegal drugs or pornography, is still painfully fresh.
If it isn’t sold out (not likely), I’m going back to Costco this week to buy some. Christmas isn’t Christmas without fruitcake. And it’s the least I can do for Grandma Susie, and my departed friend the Happy Cake Maker.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.