Making Christmas cake in Compton

Reviving a family tradition eases holiday grief.

The sweet, spicy aroma of cinnamon, allspice and rum wafted through the apartment, a hint of goodness to come. The fruitcake appeared once a year in our apartment in Compton during the Christmas Eve festivities my Panamanian family celebrated. As a child, I waited all day for my mother to place the cake at the center of the table, carefully positioned like a star on the Christmas tree. Though she had not made it in years, on the first Christmas after she died, I yearned for that glorious fruitcake. 


Preparation usually began months, if not years, before Christmas. Rum and Manischewitz Concord wine remained in our kitchen cabinet solely for the purpose of soaking dried fruit in a one-gallon plastic jar. The jar of fruit sat on top of the refrigerator, the flavors melting into each other, long before the cake’s advent. I knew of no other dish so virtuous that it required such patience.

I decided to make the fruitcake at the last minute, during the grief-stricken season that fell between my mother’s November birthday and the December holidays. I had moved into my own home in Compton a decade before, but I didn’t keep Manischewitz wine or dried fruit. I didn’t have years to prepare a fruitcake, or any of my mother’s instructions to guide me. She passed along burial insurance paperwork years before she died, but none of her recipes came down. 

My mother saved recipes-to-try in a manila folder stuffed in a kitchen drawer, but family recipes went unrecorded. Everyone in our family just knew how to cook. One of my paternal great-grandfathers, who came from Antigua, even worked as a cook for the U.S. Panama Canal Company. Recipes existed in memory and were activated through the senses. But making a cake requires specific measurements, and I had no handwritten, batter-splotched document to reference. Too much flour might yield a bread instead, an Easter bun out of its season, a shame to its maker. 

Recipes existed in memory and were activated through the senses. 

The way my mother made fruitcake reflected our family’s ties to the Caribbean countries of Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and St. Lucia. I looked online for recipes for Caribbean fruitcake and found something called black cake, its color, ingredients and time-intensive preparation similar to the fruitcake I remembered. Guided by several recipes, a Caribbean cookbook, and the spirit of those before me, I conjured a recipe. 

The first step was to replicate the jar of magic. I enlisted my father’s help. He knew all the local stores that would have what I needed. Compton’s location as the “Hub City” placed us within short driving distance of the Caribbean markets in South Central  Los Angeles, including Stone Market on Crenshaw Boulevard, where we bought coconut milk and curry powder. We also shopped at Central American markets in South Gate and Huntington Park. Terms like “food desert” did not reflect my experience. Living where we lived gave us access to the foods that enabled my parents to recreate dishes from their home country. 

In Compton, we lived among families with roots in Peru, El Salvador, Mexico, Hawaii, Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Samoa, Tonga, Panama, Compton. When our sixth-grade class held a parent potluck, my father asked my mother to make pan-fried chicken in spicy tomato sauce and fried plantains, an introduction through the food we ate to the places we came from. Neighbors with gardens and green thumbs often knocked on our door, offering bags filled with oranges, lemons, avocados or guavas. Our community had its own kind of bounty.

My father, pleased with his own resourcefulness, found raisins, currants and dried cherries at the grocery store and containers of lime-green and red candied fruit at the dollar store, instead of at the specialty stores we frequented. He supplied a Panamanian-brand dark rum from his sacred stash. I had all the ingredients only two weeks before Christmas Eve. Using everything but the candied fruit, I poured the fruit, rum and Manischewitz wine into a glass jar and closed it tight. I placed it in the corner of the counter until it was time to make the cake.

I already had basic ingredients — flour, sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg — because of the kitchens I was raised in. They were usually small spaces with two short composite-wood counters facing each other, a stove and a refrigerator with plastic vegetable and fruit magnets stuck to the door. We had three small-to-large canisters labeled sugar, flour and tea on the counter, a plastic picture of a flower bouquet or a wooden fork and spoon hung on the wall, and a cabinet filled with seasonings and dried herbs. I was never too far from the kitchen, always well-positioned for the first taste of every dish.

The kitchen was a space of my imagination. With no chimney, I thought Santa Claus entered in liquid form through the vent over the stove, then reconstituted himself to leave gifts under the tree. After watching a food show on TV, I sliced a chocolate candy bar and served the pieces with toothpicks to whoever was home. There were no break-ups or separations in the kitchen. Instead, it inspired the best moments that our family experienced together. Even when we ran the gas burners to heat the apartment, not knowing the danger, the kitchen provided us with its warmth. 

The kitchen was a space of my imagination. 

When Christmas Eve came, I created a playlist of the salsa songs my mother cooked to, pausing during the dance breaks to spin me around. I assembled the ingredients on the counter. I made browning, an essential syrup that lends the cake its color, by simmering brown sugar in a pan, once and then a second time after the first batch burned. I mixed the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls, then folded them into each other. I scooped some of the fruit out of the jar and chopped it finely, adding it to the bowl along with the juice. The mixture resembled chocolate cake batter. 

The cake baked for hours. The moist and dense texture meant the toothpick test would not work. It was ready when the edges pulled away from the pan and its familiar scent filled my home. I set it on a rack to cool. 

There were years when the cake did not appear. After my family left Compton, we moved almost 10 times over the span of three years, between North Long Beach, East Long Beach, Upland and Watts. No jar of fruit sat atop the refrigerator then. When we finally settled in an apartment in Watts, the jar appeared again, a sweet sign of rebuilding after loss. And then my mother stopped making fruitcake.

After the cake cooled, I cut a slice for myself and my father. “Put it in my hand,” he said. No plate or fork was necessary; the aroma welcomed every bite. “For your first time making it, it’s pretty damn good,” my father approved. I thought so, too. 

I first ate fruitcake in my childhood apartment in Compton. Now, I made it in my own home in Compton, without the mother who first made it for me. I was preserving a memory like fruit soaked in wine. There was much I would still have to figure out on my own. But I had already been shown the way.   

Jenise Miller is an Afro-Panamanian writer and urban planner from Compton, California. She is a California Arts Council Artist Fellow and a Tin House and VONA workshop alum. She coordinates the History of Compton Arts Interview Project and edits the KCET Artbound series, “Compton: Art and Archives.” A Pushcart-nominated poet, her writing is published in her poetry chapbook, The Blvd, as well as Boom California, Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, and the forthcoming anthology, Writing the Golden State: The New Literary Terrain of California.

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