Mark Ballard

Southern tables filled with sugar and love

A table full of sweets with the all important coconut cake as a centerpiece.
A table full of sweets with the all important coconut cake as a centerpiece. The Telegraph

They had once been black and white, but time had left them with a slight amber-colored cast. Their edges and corners had tattered where hands held them for many years. They capture split seconds of a life that existed many years ago. They are family photos that survived for many years.

My sister and I had separated them after our parents died. We each filled boxes to the brims with the ones that meant the most to us. Some of my favorite ones were of various Christmas Eves over the years. There was no order to them. Only the age we appeared or the faded date stamped at the bottom of the photo gave us clues.

My love of sugar was clearly documented in many of the photos. It simply wasn’t Christmas Eve if the dining room table wasn’t abundantly heaped with goodies of all kinds. Sugar was usually the main ingredient. We would also see some of our non-sweet favorites like sausage balls, homemade Chex mix and toasted pecans shining with butter and sprinkled with salt.

Mother always announced that you had to eat something salty to counterbalance the sweetness. Many times, it turned into a back and forth process of salty and sweet ending only when our tummies surrendered. A love of sugar ran through our veins like DNA. Every one of us loved it except daddy who could only handle it in small doses.

Born less than a week before Christmas, I was doomed to be a “sweet-aholic!” Mother laughed every time she shared the story of my nightly feedings as an infant. She would cut a hunk of Japanese fruitcake when she got up to feed me during the middle of the night. I was getting pure sugar via mother’s breast milk without even realizing it.

I spent most of last week baking and making various kinds of candy. After all, that’s what we Southerners do. A from-scratch fruit cake is always on my list. Granny called it a white fruitcake because it was not laden with tons of spices and added spirits. All it had was candied cherries and pineapple dyed various shades of red and green, eggs, flour, sugar, coconut, flavoring and cups and cups of pecans. We literally hoarded pecans for the Christmas season like squirrels hiding them away for the winter. Pecans made an appearance in almost all of our Christmas recipes.

White and fluffy divinity has always been on my candy list for as long as I can remember. Each piece is crowned with a specially selected and perfectly shaped pecan half. We never chopped our pecans to mix into the divinity because it reminded all of us of dirty snow. And, fudge just isn’t fudge without a generous smattering of chopped pecans. Now you know why we had to save them. They are like gold to us.

What’s Christmas without a coconut cake gracing the table? I don’t know because it will never happen at our house! It just looks and smells of Christmas. Pure white fluffy icing with grated coconut is mixed into the icing and generously sprinkled on top. When you adorn it with a sprig of fresh holly, it becomes downright regal! The dark green of the leaves and brightness of the small, red berries just “pop” (to use a decorator word) against the stark white cake.

Chocolate covered peanut butter balls bounce onto our table every Christmas without fail. As do chocolate covered cherries and peanuts. A relatively new tradition around our house is Eggnog pound cake. That’s only because granny didn’t think of it. A dear friend gave me the recipe a few years back and I immediately put it in my last cookbook.

On this Christmas Eve, I hope all of you are surrounded by family and friends and, of course, sugary goodness. That combination of things makes for great memories and traditions. Don’t forget to snap some photos. We Southerners absolutely love looking at photos of food.

Merry Christmas!

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email mark@markballard.com; follow him at instagram.com/mark creates; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.

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