Now and then it returns to me, a recurring holiday nightmare, the ghost of Christmas past.  I am sitting crosslegged on the floor of my grandmother's living room.  The Christmas tree is ablaze with color.  Dinner is finished.  My parents, aunts and uncles, stuffed to bursting with the Christmas repast, are lounging like beached porpoises on chairs and divans.


The hymn my grandmother has been singing in the kitchen suddenly ceases, and she appears, bright-faced in the doorway, carrying a plate filled with fruitcake slices.


There is no clear escape route.


"Try just one piece," my father commands.  "It's part of Christmas.  Your grandma made it special."


I extend my palm to receive what I will eventually come to think of as one of the seven danger signals of Christmas.


To a child, the problems with fruitcake are legion.


* It is filled with all manner of ingredients a child would normally eat only at gunpoint:  dates, figs, pieces of garden hose.


* It is laced with booze.


* Because it is prepared with dried or de-hydrated fruits, it begins to grow as soon as it makes contact with moisture.  A one-ounce slice of fruitcake, if not swallowed immediately, quickly rehydrates in the mouth to the weight of an econo-size loaf of Velveeta.


* The dog will not eat it, making covert disposal especially difficult.  I stuffed mine between the pages of the romance magazines my grandmother kept hidden under a chair cushion in another room.  She could not publicly blame me for what I had not eaten without acknowledging what she was reading.


Once I was old enough to "just say no" to fruitcake, I did.  Nor have I met another adult my age or younger who will actually admit to eating it.


So why does it survive?  Why does it continue to find its niche in recipe books?  Why do those mail-order houses up near the Canadian border (the ones that package Christmas assortments of ersatz Gruyere, breadfruit marmalade and caribou-lip sausage) insist on making it a regular feature in their Christmas catalogs?


I'll tell you why.  So grandmothers who have retired and moved to Winterhaven or Clearwater, FL, can continue to inflict it upon unsuspecting relatives back in Ohio.


Fruitcake still is with us because of mindless tradition, the same sort of tradition that compels us to eat sauerkraut on New Year's Day to assure good luck throughout the following months.  It continues because, not unlike a magazine gift subscription, it reminds the recipient of the giver for at least 12 months after it has arrived.


Incidentally, it takes a standard one-pound fruitcake three years to reach the critical-mass stage and blow the door off the front of the Amana.


There is no truth to the rumor that only one fruitcake exists in the world and people keep passing it around.  So, if you want one and you don't think Winterhaven or Clearwater will be sending you one this year, here is the recipe.





                      1 1/2 lbs. pitted dates, dried figs,

                          finely-chopped tire retreads or

                          faucet washers

                      1 lb. candied pineapple, chopped and

                          hardened to the point it will

                          scratch glass surfaces

                      1 lb. candied cherries

                      2 cups unbleached wall spackle

                      2 teaspoons baking powder

                      1\2 teaspoon salt

                      4 eggs, shells and cartons included

                      1 cup sugar

                      2 lbs. pecans, unshelled

                      1 cup light corn syrup or similarly

                          cloying ooze (cough syrup can be

                          used in a pinch)

                      4 cups grain alcohol


Mix ingredients in a large asbestos-lined bowl.  Pour into a greased 13x9-inch baking pan.  Cook at 300 degrees through October.  Cool.


Mail to Clearwater, FL.