Capitol Attitude

Flour Power: Meet the congressman who bakes 200 fruitcakes

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., holds one of his famous -- or is it infamous? -- fruitcakes. (FNC/Reuters)

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., holds one of his famous -- or is it infamous? -- fruitcakes. (FNC/Reuters)

It sounds almost like a threat.

“Maybe if you’re not good, I’ll deliver one to you,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.

Think you’ve been naughty and Santa Blumenauer is going to offload a lump of coal in your stocking?

Well, it depends – on whether you like fruitcake.

Each holiday season, Blumenauer engages in a weekend-long ritual. Some people venture off on yoga retreats in search of an awakening. Some seek mental silence in the mountains or by the sea. The congressman basically does this, too. Only Blumenauer finds a sanctum in the solitude of his kitchen, not off in the wilderness somewhere. He looks for enlightenment amid dozens of egg cartons, cheesecloth, bags of flour, raisins and sticks of butter.

Some people follow the path of Dharma.

Blumenauer follows the path of fruitcake.

For about a quarter-century now, Blumenauer once a year cranks out 200-plus fruitcakes and hand-delivers them to constituents, friends, fellow lawmakers and even journalists. He penned an essay about the baking mechanics titled “The Zen of Fruitcake.”

“After six or eight hours of baking, as I mix, sort, sift, ladle, and bake, I discover an interesting physiological connection, like being in the middle of a long run or a hike on a remote trail,” writes Blumenauer. “I get lost in the rhythm, my mind is released to think great thoughts or reflect on the mundane. A kaleidoscope of images pops up as I build my own momentum. Whether hiking, running, or baking, I am drawn by muscle memory and instinct. I find I don’t have to check the recipe to think about how many egg yolks to separate, where they go, or what comes next. The process has become part of my subconscious and physiology.”

Blumenauer says politics is a “strange business” and the cadence of making a fruitcake makes a nice “diversion.”

“It’s easy to get lost in the process,” said the congressman who often starts his kitchen trance at 7 a.m. and not finishing until after midnight. “I don’t think I thought of death panels while I was separating eggs. It does free you.”

The Oregon Democrat got hooked on fruitcake as a kid. An uncle from Texas would send along a fruitcake tin or two at Christmas-time.

“As a child, I actually liked fruitcake,” Blumenauer said. He noted that those fruitcakes were tasty and weren’t ones that “needed a chisel to eat.”

As it turned out, the youthful Blumenauer found himself devouring the fruitcakes himself.

“There wasn’t a pitched battle for it,” he said.

In the early 1990s, the congressman tried his hand at baking a few, based on a New York Times recipe. Before long, the venture eventually “metastasized” (Blumenauer’s word) into a 225 fruitcake-a-year enterprise.

Blumenauer believes he’s baked more than 5,000 fruitcakes in his life. His wife even purchased the congressman an industrial-strength Mixmaster to ease the process.

Blumenauer starts ordering the ingredients in early November. He describes the makeup of his fruitcake as “quintessential Oregon.” Locally produced cherries, citron, lemon and orange peel. A drizzle of pear brandy from the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland accompanies the fruitcake.

Dumping all of those ingredients together into one vat sounds a lot like the legislative process – much like crafting the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last week to fund the government.

“At least I know what’s in my fruitcake,” quipped Blumenauer. “My recipes have greater precision and less toxic ingredients.”

He describes the consistency of his Christmas treat as, well, “cakey” and “lighter” than other fruitcakes.

Blumenauer says most people who score one of his fruitcakes are appreciative – although he wonders if some might prefer the miniature bottles of brandy that come with them.

“People make fun of fruitcake,” Blumenauer conceded. “‘You made this?’ they ask. There are few fruitcake aficionados.”

Blumenauer distributes his fruitcakes to members of the House Ways and Means Committee (a panel on which he serves) and members of the congressional leadership. As a result, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has marshaled a fruitcake in both his new role and as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Blumenauer usually takes a tray of fruitcake to meetings of the House Democratic Caucus.

Blumenauer wanted to smuggle one into the White House for the annual holiday party but was afraid the Secret Service might flag the fruitcake as a “suspicious package.”

Sometimes the congressman gets handwritten notes and mail about his baking exploits. Blumenauer says he used to keep a file full of cards riddled with snarky fruitcake commentary from recipients. Other replies were more formal. The congressman said Portland State University President Wim Wiewel penned a note characterizing it as “a high honor” to receive one of Blumenauer’s storied fruitcakes.

Sometimes people forget about fruitcake. People plow through the cookies and pies and cobblers. And then after the holidays, they realize there’s nothing else left … except the fruitcake.

Blumenauer says that’s all right.

“There’s a durability to it,” said Blumenauer. “It will last the entire year or longer. Just put a little brandy on it.”

Joggers sometimes attain a “runner’s high.” Blumenauer attains a baking “high.” And perhaps that’s the Zen in the exercise.

Nirvana is described as the ultimate state of enlightenment. A peace of mind beyond desires and aspirations. With Blumenauer’s fruitcake, the congressman says he’s most pleased that he crafts an end product. Something tangible that he bakes for others to eat and enjoy.

Or maybe don’t. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.