To authentically understand the plight of the downtrodden, it helps to imagine yourself in their place. Walk a mile in their shoes, the adage goes.
Rebecca E. Green of Osage Beach, Mo. did that. She empathized. She showed great compassion. She considered what an unwonderful life a Christmas fruitcake might endure, all unwanted and unbeloved and undesired. Sometimes, she thought, a fruitcake might need a friend.
So she wrote this tender poem.
Fruitcake, how are you?
Underrated and lonely?
Hang in there, sweetie.
Cue James Taylor with “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Green’s empathy for holiday baking’s exiled refugee won her first place in this year’s Mrs. Harvey’s White Fruitcake Haiku Contest. The contest was inspired by a beloved fruitcake recipe printed each holiday season for 62 years in The Tampa Tribune.
This year’s esteemed celebrity judge, Ree Drummond, best known as the blogger “The Pioneer Woman” and the host of the Saturday morning Food Network show of the same name, awarded Green first prize among hundreds of entries for relating to the unlovable cake’s reputation on a personal level.
Drummond knows about seasonal cooking. Her latest book, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays” (William Morrow, $29.95) guides readers step-by-step through “140 recipes for simple, scrumptious celebrations.”
When invited to be a judge, Drummond responded quickly. “Haiku is my life!” she said.
Pushing deadline to make her ruling, she apologized profusely: “It’s been an arduous decision-making process!!!!!”
As for this year’s first-prize poem, Drummond said, “Even though she’s human, Rebecca seems to understand the overall plight of a fruitcake and provides much-needed support.
“This is brimming with understanding and love. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?”
Drummond gave second place to George Landgrebe of Brandon, who dipped into a children’s fairy tale for inspiration.
The fourth little pig
Made his house out of Fruitcake.
The house did stand strong.
Drummond wrote, “I love this playful nod both to the Three Little Pigs, and that indestructible — even from a huffing, puffing wolf — substance known as fruitcake.”
This year’s third-place winner, Sherry Chastain Thomas-Dertke of Tampa, aimed for naughty instead of nice.
Its charms are hidden,
But like the artful stripper
They’re slowly revealed.
Perhaps she makes her fruitcakes with Blaze Starrfruit.
Dated reference, we know.
The poem made Drummond blush a little, but she couldn’t resist its naked appeal.
“I wouldn’t have thought I’d select a haiku with such an alluring topic as ... ahem ... dancing,” Drummond wrote. “But this one paints an effective picture. And the ‘charms’ are a perfect description of the little brightly colored (albeit gelatinous) fruits in fruitcake.”
It was difficult to pare the avalanche of poems we received into a top tier. So many were clever and funny, warm and witty.
Still, there were topical patterns in the submissions. This year’s contributing poets were unkind specifically to the University of Florida’s anemic football program.
The Gators are through.
It must have been the fruitcake
FSU gave them.
– Vicki Almerico
The hapless Gators —
Forced to eat crow and fruitcake
and endure war whoops.
– Sherry Chastain Thomas-Dertke
The Gators play with
a fruitcake instead of a
football, in a pinch.
– Colin Aycock
As during the contest’s previous six years, the 2013 haiku challenge was an international affair, with submissions coming from as far away as Hawaii and Spain.
Joshua DeMello of Honolulu wrote of his inability to keep away from the sticky, gooey deliciousness.
tempting me to cut a slice.
I am fooled again.
Richard Standen of Bury St. Edmunds in England penned this ditty:
An old recipe.
Secret ingredients all.
How nutty am I?
Fact-checking revealed that Bury St. Edmonds is a market town in the county of Suffolk. The town, originally called Beodericsworth (now we know why they changed it), is known for brewing and for being the home of a British Sugar processing factory. The things you learn when you read haiku.
Andrea D’Sylva sent a blizzard of entries from a place that knows a thing or two about snow: Toronto, Canada. Andrea’s sister, Chrislyn D’Sylva Pires, lives in Tampa and put her on to the contest. Andrea wrote:
Fruitcake, much maligned
Product of the pastry chef
Who gets off, scot-free.
Iris Evans of Land O’ Lakes emailed images of a Tampa Tribune food section from Nov. 9, 1961, which she found recently while cleaning out an old recipe file. Back then, beloved writer Ann McDuffie was the food editor.
“It was noted in the article that Mrs. Harvey said the cost of her fruitcake ingredients was $4.36, sans decorating the top, which she said was ‘gilding the lily,’” Evans writes. “This is a real archive don’t you think?”
Her digging also resulted in finding her mother’s handwritten recipes that she thought were forever lost.
“I am the mother of two girls and two sons,” she says. “Their marriages have produced 22 grands and 10 great-grands. Several years ago, all the adult females started a tradition of giving each other recipe pages for Christmas (each personally decorated) and compiling a book of our favorites to pass on to the future generations. In 2007, I sent the Mrs. Harvey’s fruitcake recipe.”
Other contributors were more existential. Frances Farrell of Plant City questioned whether her choice of fruitcake was limiting her romantic options:
Why am I still single?
Bob and Shirley Redcay of Riverview have the opposite situation. She writes:
Call me crazy, but
I actually like fruitcake.
So I married one!
The Redcays will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary on Christmas Day. This is what happens when mommy kisses Santa Claus.
As in past years, the contest became a teaching tool in local schools. Cathy Stein’s fourth-grade language arts class at Springhead Elementary School in Plant City once again took a shot at writing poems. Stein’s students wrote haiku after filling in their “sense matrix” with the smell, look, taste and other sensations of fruitcake.
The students also counted syllables, which helped them learn about spelling. They also wrote long paragraphs describing fruitcake.
“As in previous years, most of them had never tasted fruitcake but the majority liked it and even ate seconds,” Stein says. “Thank you for a real-world lesson in writing.”
Some examples of their work:
Jim had a problem
He could not walk for five days.
He ate a fruitcake!
to the rescue with a huge
fat flying fruitcake!
Frosty the Snowman,
Please lay off the great fruitcake.
Your ball is too full.
Other finalist poems among the adult authors winked at baking fads and pop culture queens:
is what great-grandmother made.
Goes well with haiku.
– Kay Clark, St. Petersburg
No one likes the twerk,
but like gifting the fruitcake,
everyone does it.
– Tamara DiCaprio, Chesapeake, Va.
Fruitcake’s the answer
to those perplexing questions
no one ever asks.
– Ed Matthews, Lakeland
If you can go nuts
for cronuts, why not fry a
hybrid fruitcake pie?
– Erin Renouf Mylroie, Santa Clara, Utah
Fruitcake on the shelf
Left there instead of an Elf
Free to be bad!
– Elena Stumpe, Apollo Beach
Fruitcake’s right up there
With holiday traditions,
Solid as a rock.
– Misty Walker, Tuscaloosa, Ala.