Aboard the cruiser USS Phoenix in the South Pacific, amid the battles of World War II, Navy men nursed their fantasies of unattainable things.
Booze. Cigarettes. Women and more women.
Yeoman Marvin Meyer dreamed of fruitcake.
It arrived by the occasional mail transport, just when Meyer thought his parents back in Baltimore had given up on writing him.
It came in summer and it came in winter, bought from the old Hutzler's department store.
It wasn't a holiday present; his parents were Jewish. It was simply food they thought would keep.
After day after day of nothing but rice, fruitcake was the most cherished of treats.
"I've eaten it when it was damp, when there was sea water in it," Meyer said. "It always tasted good."
When he got out of the Navy in 1946, Meyer went home to work at Cy's Toggery, the family store in Catonsville. He thought that was the end of his fruitcake passion.
He mentioned this to a customer, a young mother named Marcella Weetenkamp. She said, "I make the best ever. I'll make you one."
Every Christmas for the past 50 years, Meyer has received a Weetenkamp fruitcake.
Of course, fruitcake is the Rodney Dangerfield of holiday gifts, the one that gets no respect. People sneer at its durability, poke fun at its shape and color.
The ingredients list for Marcella Weetenkamp's fruitcake takes up more than a page. This fruitcake is made by hand. That does not merely mean "from scratch."
It means the cake is mixed with one's hands, their warmth used to melt a pound of butter into nearly two pounds of sugar, to fold in a dozen eggs, to mash together currants and figs and dates and walnuts and pineapple and cherries and peels of orange and lemon.
Every year, Marcella Weetenkamp did this for her family -- and for Marvin Meyer. For about 20 years she brought the cakes into Meyer's store, sometimes with her children, who were growing up.
Then, slowly, the baker's eyesight began to fade. No longer could she discern the precise measurements of flour and fruit.
It became understood that her son, Jim, would take over.
"The first time I had to make fruitcakes, I thought she was out of her mind," said Jim Weetenkamp, now 55. "My arm hurt for a week."
Marcella's health failed, but the fruitcake tradition continued. Perhaps it was fitting that she died on Christmas 1979, after spending the day with her family. She was 71.
At the funeral, Meyer turned sadly to Jim Weetenkamp and said, "I guess that's the end of my fruitcake."
Jim Weetenkamp replied: "Mother's been blind for 10 years. Who do you think has been making them?"
The cakes kept coming.
In 1990, Jim Weetenkamp moved to Jacksonville, Fla., to a job with CSX. And Meyer said, "I guess that's the end of my fruitcake."
But Weetenkamp said: "I'll mail them to you."
So the fruitcakes have arrived for the past eight years, in a brown paper package instead of hand-carried into Cy's.
Marvin Meyer is a secure shopkeeper now, a man of 72 years, a husband of 47 years, a father of three.
But the fruitcake, Meyer still eats alone.
He fibs to his employees and his children that it doesn't taste good. His wife, Bella, knows this is simply private, and so she never asks for a piece anymore.
He will eat a slice a night for about a week, with a little whiskey poured on the top.
And since these fruitcakes are too uniquely his to share, it is left to Marvin Meyer to tell us how they taste.
To him -- and this is no offense to any maker of the fruitcake he has loved these 50 years -- they all taste the same.
They taste like America.
They taste like home.
They taste like love and freedom and rescue and escape from deprivation.
They taste like something that no one can ever take away.
"Can you imagine walking out of the desert, hot and sweaty, and someone gives you a cold drink?" Meyer asked. "It's like that."
Pub Date: 12/25/98