Finding meaning in bad fruitcake

Playwright and writer Topher Payne

My grandmother on my mother’s side, the widowed commander of a brood of six children, was presented with the daily task of staying afloat on a very limited budget.

She rose to the challenge, stretching every morsel of food and inch of fabric to cover the demands of her family. Her resourcefulness truly shined every December, when she created low-cost alternatives to the usual holiday fare.

As a tribute to my late grandmother, my Mama still prepares her “unbaked fruit cake,” a sticky-sweet mishmash of condensed milk, vanilla wafers, and candied fruit, formed into a loaf and left to harden on the counter for several weeks.

It barely qualifies as food. The polite but unfortunate relations who have attempted ingesting this concoction have either lost teeth or experienced instantaneous insulin shock.

My sister Shannon and I have spent years reminding Mama that the only reason our grandmother prepared this monstrosity is because she was poor. Had the option of preparing actual fruitcake been financially viable, she would have gleefully done so. Perhaps a more fitting tribute to our grandmother would be baking the fancy fruitcake that eluded her all those years.

Mama remains unmoved by our entreaties, declaring unbaked fruitcake a sacred family tradition, whether any of us like it or not.

My birthday’s next week — it’s my Jesus year. I’ll be 33, which is as far as Jesus got if you don’t count the Resurrection. According to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, it’s as far as I’ll be getting as well.

Considering I’m currently living in a world where they’re taking away Twinkies and I can’t have Chick-fil-a for ethical reasons, I’ve made my peace with the possibility of things wrapping up in the next month or so.

But then there are others who say that the 2012 “End of Days” prophesies refer to a new age of enlightenment — a radical shift in human interaction. There’s evidence to support that.

My marriage license recently picked up service in a few new states. The next time I go to Colorado, I can apparently get totally baked without fear of retribution. It’s all terribly exciting, although I’m sure there are people who would take these as signs that the world is ending.

I make little notes every birthday of things I’d like to achieve in the coming year. I am notorious for my overplanning. “Get in shape” is always on there. So is painting the house, and getting this damn tattoo of a typewriter I’ve wanted for about seven years.

One year I actually put “Stop overplanning” on the list. I don’t know why I do it to myself. I suppose it’s tradition.

Perhaps Mama and I would be well-advised to consider what “tradition” really is. It’s intended to be an activity you actually enjoy repeating, like watching “Revenge” with my husband, or drinking a whole pot of coffee on Sunday mornings.

Annually preparing a brick of cookie crumbs and neon green cherries, or making a list of things you never actually do, is not tradition. It’s just making the same mistake over and over and not learning anything.

I’ve had the same conversation about the typewriter tattoo with my husband Preppy for years. I talk about wanting it, then talk myself out of it because I might have to cover it if I get an acting gig.

This year, Preppy tried a different tactic when I brought it up. He pointed out that I spend a lot more time as myself than I do as someone else, so shouldn’t I do what would make me happy?

I’m gonna hold out hope on the notion of this new age of enlightenment, even in a world without Twinkies. For good or bad, my Jesus year will be what it will be.

Sometimes the results will be fantastic, and sometimes it’ll be an unbaked fruitcake: The best mix of what I have to work with at the moment, with the hope of something better later.

No lists this time. Let’s just see what lies ahead.


Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at