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‘The Christmas Fruitcake’ by Henri Marchand

A note from Henri Marchand: Like its subject, this essay has been around, appearing first as a Sunrise radio essay on WUML-FM at UMass Lowell, re-wrapped as a “Guest Column” piece in the Sun, and showing up on this blog for the first time in 2009—and then returning here annually as a tradition of its own. At Paul Marion’s request I re-gift it once more to all who either love or loathe the fruitcake. Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Fruitcake

by Henri Marchand

I think there is no yuletide tradition so endlessly lampooned and so deliciously mocked as the once esteemed fruitcake. Everyone loves chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and even plum pudding gets an annual endorsement by the beloved Cratchits, but mention fruitcake and people will tend to giggle. Johnny Carson suggested that there exists but one fruitcake in the world, which passes from one unappreciative family to another. Calvin Trillin is reported to have commented: “There is nothing dangerous about fruitcakes as long as people send them along without eating them.” And in Manitou Spring, Colorado, the Chamber of Commerce sponsors an annual Great Fruitcake Toss. The record is 420 feet, the waste immeasurable.

Unpopular as they may appear to be, a web search turns up more than two million fruitcake hits. Mail-order bakeries began selling them in 1913, and now sell thousands every year. There were times when the fruitcake was revered. Early recipes date to ancient Rome, but evolved over the years. The modern fruitcake originated in the Middle Ages with honey, rare spices, and hard-to-get preserved fruit from the Far East. In the 18th century, nuts were incorporated, the cakes eaten for good luck with the following year’s harvest. Due to the expense of the ingredients and a difficult baking process, fruitcakes were once restricted by law in Europe to special events like weddings and Christmas. Today the fruitcake is pretty much a Christmas tradition. (Has anyone ever heard the refrain, “The bride cuts the fruitcake!”?) There are many types of fruitcake, but basically they’re all a pile of fruits and nuts glommed together with a minimum of batter and often dusted with powdered sugar and soaked in liquor for added flavor and shelf life.

When it comes to fruitcake, everyone takes sides. As in politics, there are two camps, each sharply opinionated—those who have bitten the hallowed fruitcake and those who would rather die. Of those with a taste for this yuletide dessert a number partake openly while others do so surreptitiously, stealing a morsel when they think no one is looking. Among those few bold enough to discuss their addiction, there are particular preferences. Some fancy the lighter, citron-based variety, while others crave cakes with a higher nut content. Some drool over the dry, crumbly variants, others lap up the glazed and gooey sorts. In my early years I never cared for the bland flavor of citrus bits or their texture, which I found not unlike that of pencil erasers.

I developed an affinity later in life, and I have baked a pair of cobblestone-sized loaves annually for over a decade. I do so with great holiday cheer despite loud family protestations. The recipe I follow is out of a dog-eared cookbook, a dark molasses-rich block chock-full of candied cherries and pineapples, dates, and golden raisins. But I’ve modified the mix over the years and use shelled walnuts instead of Brazil nuts. Mainly it’s because I prefer the taste of walnuts. It’s also because shelling Brazil nuts is like disarming grenades. You need a deft touch, applying just enough pressure, otherwise the crescent-shaped, steel-like shells explode, scattering shrapnel all over the place and turning the nutmeat to mush. A pound of nuts produces a measly two-to-three usable undamaged pieces. Cutting up the fruit is no less challenging, as thickly sugared pineapples and naturally tacky dates stick to knives, cutting boards and fingers. Many end up in my mouth. This year I’m going to add dried apricots to the mix and drown one of the finished cakes in brandy or bourbon, an added inducement for those who have yet to indulge themselves.

I’ll do this because I’ve noticed that there are not many takers when I wheel out the fruitcake on Christmas Eve. I don’t push it on anyone or suggest that they try “just one little piece.” I just slice it and let it speak for itself at the front of the buffet table under a small spotlight. Oh, several guests are polite and compliment its jeweled appearance and my stubborn adherence to tradition, but there aren’t many slices missing by midnight. Others shake their heads and say, “No thanks, I don’t do fruitcake,” as if refusing a casual offer of an illegal substance. Some groan dramatically and cry, “Oh, no, no, I’d love to but I just couldn’t eat another bite,” even as they shovel down handfuls of peanuts and mouth another meatball. Still others simply sniff in mock derision, roll their eyes and say things like, “Yeah, right, Dad!” Apparently, Santa’s no fan either, as the thick slices left for him by the tree are still there Christmas morning while the chocolate milk is gone.

I know the merry barbs are coming from the anti-fruitcake faction and the remains of my effort will linger long after the holidays, but I don’t care. I like fruitcake! I’ll enjoy slivers of these ageless bricks for the next six months. Or until the spirit of the season abandons me in April, when I’ll toss the lot of what’s left to the squirrels and birds.

Lowell Week in Review: December 21, 2014

There have been times during the past year when I’ve expressed concern that the current Lowell City Council has been too reactionary and has been lacking in strategic vision.  Over the past two months, however, there have been some motions that could go a long way to remedying that problem.  The motions I speak of, when combined with some existing project plans, combine to create an incredibly exciting, dynamic blueprint for revitalizing a core portion of Lowell, namely the main artery that runs from the corner of Pawtucket and Merrimack Streets all the way to the Gallagher Train Station.  Consider the eleven projects annotated on the map below:

Upper Merrimack – Dutton – Fletcher corridor

 

  1. University Crossing – UMass Lowell’s student and community center on the banks of the Merrimack on the site of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital.
  2. Upper Merrimack Street corridor – from City Hall to University Crossing, this is prime territory for UMass Lowell expansion and for housing and business development driven by the university, by the ever-resourceful Coalition for a Better Acre, and for the dynamic, innovative Acre Neighborhood group.  Councilor Bill Samaras recently filed a motion to have the city’s Department of Planning and Development brief the council on plans for this stretch.
  3. Smith Baker Center – abandoned for years after most recently serving as the Lowell Council on Aging facility, the Smith Baker Center has the potential to be an amazing performance venue that fits the spectator capacity niche that falls somewhere between the Lowell Memorial Auditorium and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.  The performance hall on the second floor permits the ground floor to be used for retail or business purposes which would hopefully help with the costs of operating the overall facility.  A few months ago Mayor Rodney Elliot convened a task force to investigate the way forward for this facility.  While nothing official has been announced, multiple sources tell me that many on this task force are optimistic that a viable project will emerge in the near future.
  4. National Park Service parking lot – the Dutton Street parking lot that services the Market Street visitor center.  This space has been one of the major roadblocks holding up the larger Hamilton Canal project.  With the current surface parking lot seen as THE prime private business development space of Hamilton Canal, the city has tried for years to acquire this parcel from the National Park Service.  Back during this summer, City Manager Kevin Murphy finally was able to announce that an understanding had been reached whereby the city would build a new parking garage deeper into the Hamilton District and that the garage would be uniquely designed to permit tour buses to enter and navigate.  Building this garage will be an expensive proposition, but with so much of the larger development turning on this facility, it really has to be done and the sooner the better.
  5. Trolley Line Extension – Just weeks ago the city picked up a $2 million planning grant for the expansion of the existing trolley system the first phase of which would extend the line from the Swamp Locks (on Dutton Street opposite the Textile History Museum) through the Hamilton Canal project, across Middlesex and Appleton Streets then up to and across the South Common to the Gallagher Terminal.  The contemplated expansion would transform the trolley from a novelty ride for tourists to an integral part of a mass transit system.
  6. Judicial Center – Once constructed, this will be one of the most magnificent public buildings in the Commonwealth (I’ve seen the plans).  It will be seven stories tall and will be built in an energy-friendly style with lots of glass and steel that will complement and enhance the neighboring brick mill buildings.  This building will not only consolidate all court operations now in the city (District Court, Juvenile Court, Superior Court and Registry of Deeds), it will also bring substantial court resources from Cambridge and Woburn to Lowell. Half the probate court session in the entire county will sit in Lowell along with nearly half of the Superior Court sessions (there are only two now) and a permanent Housing Court presence.  Once open, this courthouse will draw hundreds of court employees, litigants, jurors and others to the Hamilton Canal district each day.  But that all depends on the building being constructed.  Last I heard, the timetable has it opening in 2018 but with the current budget deficit projects like this are always at risk of being delayed or cut.  Hopefully the Baker administration will see that the benefits of going forward with this project outweigh the budgetary value of any savings gained by killing it.
  7. Lord Overpass redo – In early November, Governor Patrick came to Lowell with $15 million for the renovation of the Lord Overpass.  My fear has been that state planners will simply upgrade the existing traffic circle and simply ignore the dire need to make the entire corridor more pedestrian friendly.  This past Tuesday, Councilor Bill Martin filed a motion that the DPD do a presentation to the Transportation Subcommittee on the plans for this project.  Everyone in the city who is interested in walking, biking and public transportation should plan to attend this meeting and become vocal advocates for relegating the failed 1960s car-culture era projects like the Sampson Connector to the scrap heap of history and redo the entire Dutton-Lord Overpass-Thorndike stretch into something more walkable and bikeable.
  8. Thorndike Factory Outlet – It was back in 2013 that Sal Lupoli, owner of Sal’s Pizza, acquired this property and appeared before the city council to share his plans for a mixed residential and retail facility that would be directly connected to the Gallagher Terminal by an elevated pedestrian walkway built with state funds obtained by the city’s legislative delegation.  This was most recently in the news when a bolt of lightning fractured the large Hood Medicine smokestack which was damaged beyond repair and was torn down.  The intended facility would be a great addition to the bigger picture of this neighborhood.
  9. South Common – The city has plans to revitalize this important public green space.  A big part of that would be replacing the grass and (mostly) dirt surface of the field in the bowl of the common with artificial turf which would turn the space into an excellent soccer field.  As we saw during last summer’s World Cup, the diversity of Lowell’s residents and the widespread participation of a generation of young people through the Lowell Youth Soccer Association make the city a natural hot bed for soccer.  Although not part of the current plan, a chunk of space on the periphery of the common should be ceded to Mill City Grows for a community garden.
  10. Gallagher Terminal – the rebuild of the parking garage is well underway but much should be done to improve the quality of services offered at the Gallagher Terminal.  Around the world, train stations become regional hubs of activity with retail, dining and other amenities to complement the public transportation.  The Gallagher Terminal does not invite people to linger.  It has a definite get in and get out ambiance.  And getting from the Terminal to downtown Lowell on foot cries out to visitors in a hundred different ways that “you’re not all that welcome here.”
  11. Cambodia Town – The Pailin Plaza section of Cambodia town is densely packed with restaurants, retailers and dozens of other small businesses.  It has huge potential to attract visitors coming by train and those who work and do business at the new courthouse and the Hamilton Canal district which is not that far away.  But like much of the rest of the area, the ability to walk safely and comfortably to this area is an afterthought at best.
  12. Western Avenue Studios – Every time I visit this place there’s another floor or section that’s been opened up.  With more than 200 artists and countless others inhabiting this place, it can be a great complement to Hamilton Canal workers and residents if it was easier for them to get there.  This is an especially tricky problem because not only is WAS walled off by the Sampson Connector, but also by the active train tracks that extend from the Lord Overpass up Middlesex Street through UMass Lowell’s South Campus and into North Chelmsford.  Concerned about liability, the railroad has expressed no interest in finding a safe and convenient way for walkers to get from Hamilton Canal to Western Avenue.  A good little leaguer could throw a baseball from one to the other but to physically get from one to the other you have to get in your car and follow a roundabout journey that is anything but direct.

So there are twelve projects, all connected geographically, that combine to be a transformative undertaking if we only think big.  Too often over the past year, public policy discussion in the city has been reactionary – responding to complaints about parking, traffic, crime.  To make real improvement, we have to think big, think strategically.  These twelve projects (and others in the same area that elude mention this morning) constitute a major strategic plan.

Consider a piece in Friday’s Boston Globe “Capital” section: five editorial writers offered their suggestions to the incoming Baker Administration on ways to “make Massachusetts more prosperous.”  Here’s the fifth suggestion:

Build rail to the gateway cities

Because of their cheap commercial real estate, cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and New Bedford could be dream locations for tech startups. But it will be tough to persuade Boston-based entrepreneurs — and the venture capitalists who support them — to make the trip out of the Hub or convince their employees to do the same. Improving commuter rail service is key to changing this mentality. Baker should use this as a rationale to push for South Coast Rail, and to improve the service on the Lowell line from North Station. Better transportation could export some of the energy that currently animates the Seaport District to other parts of the state — and grow the economy in cities that could use the boost

MBTA commuter rail Lowell line

We all think of the Lowell Line as a way to get us into Boston (which is how I travel there anytime I have to go).  But what if the Lowell Line brought young high tech workers who are determined to live and recreate in the big city to Lowell each weekday for work in the Hamilton Canal District?  The train station is just a short walk from there (and assuming the current walk is made safer, more inviting, and more pedestrian friendly).  More workers in the Hamilton Canal District will mean more people venturing into the Acre and Lower Highlands for restaurants, shops and eventually housing as rising Boston rents and condo prices make living in Lowell a more attractive option.

Combine with this the momentum of UMass Lowell and you really can remake the city.  The starting point, however, is recognizing that the center of gravity of downtown Lowell must shift from the intersection of Merrimack and Central to Dutton and Fletcher.  That should be ground zero for our attention.  Let good things radiate out from there, not to the neglect of the rest of the city but for the benefit of us all.

There were, of course, other things going on in the city this past week but there’s already enough to think about in this post.  I’ll roll out some other things during the coming week in separate posts.

Merry Christmas to all.

Lowell Real Estate: week of December 15, 2014

December 15, 2014 – Monday
60 Billerica St Unit C for $190,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $190,000
170 Holyrood Ave for $400,000. Prior sale in 2007 for $475,000
71 Ecklund Dr for $264,900. New construction

December 16, 2014 – Tuesday
19 Commonwealth AVe for $250,000. Prior sale in 1974
56 Rock St for $155,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $250,000
12 Bunkhorn Ave for $94,700. Prior sale in 2012 for $71,400

December 17, 2014 – Wednesday

100 Rogers St Unit 8 for $87,142. Prior sale 2014 foreclosure
14 Carter St for $83,000. Prior sale 2011 foreclosure
96 Mt Washington St for $227,000. Prior sale in 2011 for $135,000
1431 Pawtucket Blvd Unit 39 for $186,000. Prior sale in 2005 for $218,000
21 Stromquiest Ave for $202,000. Prior sale in 2002 for $87,000
65 Commonwealth Ave for $260,000. Prior sale in 2002 for $87,000
1229 Lawrence St Unit 101 for $85,500. Prior sale in 1999 for $45,000

December 18, 2014 – Thursday
132 Boylston Ln Unit 39 for $85,000. Prior sale in 2006 for $122,000
307 Pawtucket Blvd Unit 18 for $101,000. Prior sale in 2000 for $63,900
43 Merrill Ave for $220,000. Prior sale in 1996 for $126,000
3 Ecklund Dr for $262,400. New construction

December 19, 2014 – Friday
33 Ridge Rd for $220,000. Prior sale 2014 foreclosure
157 Nesmith St Unit 11 for $151,000. Prior sale in 2012 for $85,000
41 Donald Terr for $230,000. Prior sale in 1956
133 Willie St Unit 133 for $164,900. Prior sale gift from city to Habitat for Humanity
133 Willie St Unit 135 for $164,900. Prior sale gift from city to Habitat for Humanity
1401 Pawtucket Blvd Unit 415 for $260,000. Prior sale in 2006 for $369,000
9 Roper St for $165,000. Prior sale in 1960
100 Hayes Ave for $305,000. Prior sale in 2001 for $209,900
26 Cedar St for $348,000. Prior sale in 2008 for $162,000
15 Alton St Unit 14 for $169,900. Prior sale in 2005 for $244,900
41 Westview Rd for $294,500. Prior sale in 1981
43 Nicollet St for $299,000. Prior sale in 1997 for $145,000
900 Lawrence St Unit 15 for $165,000. New condo.

“Parties’ by Jack McDonough

One of our past contributors has a seasonal essay to share with our readers. Jack McDonough has been a writer and editor at UMass Lowell in the University Relations Office for 20 years. He wrote this piece for broadcast as one of the daily essays on the Sunrise radio program that aired in the mid-2000s on WUML-FM, the radio station on campus.—PM

“Parties” by Jack McDonough

Well, here we are at the end of the year again. And you know what that means.

That means parties. Office parties. Neighborhood parties. Family parties.

Parties are nice but when they all come within about three weeks of one another, it’s a bit tiring.

There are problems, too. Not big problems – but party problems.

One of the first things I think of when I ponder these annual get-togethers is napkins. You never get cloth napkins at parties. That would be unreasonable. You can’t expect the person giving the party to provide linens. So, of course, when you work your way down the buffet table you pick up a paper napkin.

That’s fine with me. Except that paper napkins at holiday events are always too small and they always come with some kind of seasonal greeting printed on them. You know – Merry Christmas or Happy New Year or something like that.

It’s not the message I mind. It’s the ink. You can’t wipe meatball gravy off your face with a napkin coated with ink Inky napkins are not absorbent. The best you can do is turn it inside out so the ink is on the other side. But you still have the size problem. Those printed napkins are always too small to do much good.

I’d be much happier with a big paper towel. Maybe two of them.

Then, of course, there is the problem of juggling the food on a paper plate and trying to cut a piece of chicken with a plastic knife. And it’s impossible to do while you’re standing up. There’s never enough room for everyone to sit down. I understand that.  That can’t be helped. But even if you can find a chair, cutting up food on your lap is a dicey procedure.

And if you somehow have managed to juggle a plate of food and pick up a drink at the same time, you’ve got to find a place to put that drink down so it won’t get knocked over. If you’re standing up and you put it down on a table somewhere, someone is likely to pick it up by mistake and walk off with it. And if you’re sitting down and you put it on the floor, someone – probably you – will end up kicking it over.

The quantity of food itself is never a problem at these parties. There’s always plenty. The trouble is that there may be a lot of duplication. If it’s a potluck kind of event, you can be sure that before the night is over, there will be four huge bowls of salad on the table.

And lasagna. There’s always lasagna in a serving dish that’s about the size of Rhode Island. I’m not a lasagna fan. Don’t get me wrong. I love Italian food – and I guess lasagna is Italian. The word sounds Italian and it’s made of pasta. It’s just that there’s way too much pasta there for me. And then there are those layers of cheese. Most people must like lasagna though, because it’s always there.

My strategy is to pick out only the kind of food you can eat with your fingers. Like chicken wings. Or pepperoni and cheese. Or ripple potato chips that you can use to scoop up a lot of dip. If you fill up on all that, you can skip the difficult stuff and just walk around with your drink.

Desserts are always plentiful. And there’s almost always a big plate of brownies. Brownies are good. Especially if they’re made with that dark, semi-sweet chocolate. As Rachael Ray would say, “Yum.”

But that brings up the issue of gaining weight in December. That’s why all the health club memberships go up in January.

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