Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Big Rock Candy Figgy Pudding Pitfall

Joan Didion (1934–2021)
From American Christmas Stories

“It was late in September, about the time certain canny elves began strategically spotting their Make It Yourself for Christmas books near supermarket check-out counters.” Three of the many 1966 Christmas decor publications that inspired Joan Didion to write her humorous Christmas story. (eBay).
Joan Didion had been working at Vogue for eight years when she was dismissed in late 1964, shortly after she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved to Los Angeles. She began at the magazine as a writer of promotional copy and eventually worked her way up to the position of features associate before becoming one of Vogue’s two film critics. Years later, both Didion and Pauline Kael, who was the film critic at McCall’s, would tell people they had been fired for trashing The Sound of Music; Didion’s review of that movie includes the often-quoted zinger, “Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.” While Kael’s recollection concerning her dismissal has been questioned by those who worked with her at the time, “Didion has a bit more leverage in her legend, if only because there is no loud opponent to her version of events,” writes film critic Justine Smith.

Working as a freelancer, Didion began publishing articles and stories for The Saturday Evening Post, and she and Dunne struggled to make ends meet. In early 1966, they adopted a baby girl, who had been born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica on March 3, and named her Quintana Roo. “Once she was born I was never not afraid,” she recalls in her 2011 memoir Blue Nights. “What if I fail to take care of this baby?” The struggle to balance domestic concerns and a career, along with doubts of her own abilities, haunted and inspired Didion’s work for the next five decades.

“Our daybook for those months shows no income at all for April, $305.06 for May, none for June, and, for July, $5.29, a dividend on our single capital asset, fifty shares of Transamerica stock left to me by my grandmother,” she wrote years later. Amidst this hardship, she published “The Big Rock Candy Figgy Pudding Pitfall,” a humor piece for the holidays that pokes fun of her desire to be a “‘can do’ kind of woman.” Reprinted below, the piece is somewhat atypical for her, resembling Shirley Jackson’s or Erma Bombeck’s stories about home life far more than anything Didion would write in the coming years.

During the remainder of the decade, she and Dunne enjoyed a complete turnaround in fortunes. They struck a relatively lucrative deal with The Saturday Evening Post for a monthly column which would alternate between the two of them, and her first book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, became a critical success. At the end of 1969, she and Dunne worked together on the screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park, adapted from the novel about heroin addicts by James Mills and starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn. After The Post folded that year, she was offered a column in Life, and the opening of one piece seems almost a sequel of sorts—a far more Didion-like revision of the “Figgy Pudding” story.
I had wanted to make this Christmas a “nice” Christmas, for my husband and for our baby and for everyone who came to our house in Los Angeles, and, because such plans lend always to involve an element of self-congratulation, a way of perceiving oneself in a new and flattering light, I suppose most of all for myself. I saw a house full of candles and star jasmine. . . . We would make pomegranate jelly and wrap the jars in red Cellophane. We would sit at the piano and pick out carols together. . . .
The remainder of this newest holiday essay, however, does not echo the obsessive home decor mania of her previous story. Didion and Dunne were in New York to work on the film, and the day after she wrote the piece they had “an appointment with a dealer in a Blimpy Burger on a desolate side street” and would “spend the next week with two junkies.” She felt remorseful because she wouldn’t be spending Christmas Day with her three-year-old daughter doing “so many small things as to imprint indelibly upon her memory some trace of the rituals of family love.” Yet in the end she concluded, “The baby will know something about family love on Christmas because she knows something about it today, and she will also know something about its complexities.”

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.
The Big Rock Candy Figgy Pudding Pitfall

You will perhaps have difficulty understanding why I conceived the idea of making 20 hard-candy topiary trees and 20 figgy puddings in the first place. The heart of it is that although I am frail, lazy and unsuited to doing anything except what I am paid to do, which is sit by myself and type with one finger, I like to imagine myself a “can-do” kind of woman, capable of patching the corral fence, pickling enough peaches to feed the hands all winter, and then winning a trip to Minneapolis in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. In fact, the day I stop believing that if put to it I could win the Pillsbury Bake-Off will signal the death of something.

It was late in September, about the time certain canny elves began strategically spotting their Make it Yourself for Christmas books near supermarket check-out counters, when I sensed the old familiar discontent. I would stand there in the Westward Ho market, waiting to check out my frozen chicken Tetrazzini and leafing through the books, and I would see how far I had drifted from the real pleasures. I did not “do” things. I did not sew spangles on potholders for my friends. I did not make branches of marzipan mistletoe for my hostesses. I did not give Corn Dog and Caroling Parties for neighborhood children (Did I know any neighborhood children? Were there any neighborhood children? What exactly was my neighborhood?), the Corn Dogs to be accompanied by Hot Santa’s Grog.

Nor had it ever occurred to me to buy Styrofoam balls, cover them with hard candies, plant them on wooden stalks in small flowerpots, and end up with amusingly decorative hard-candy topiary trees, perfect for centerpieces or last-minute gifts. At the check-out counter, I recognized clearly that my plans for the Christmas season—making a few deadlines—were stale and unprofitable. Had my great-great-grandmother come west in a covered wagon and strung cranberries on scrub oaks so that I might sit by myself in a room typing with one finger and ordering Italian twinkle lights by mail from Hammacher Schlemmer?

I wanted to be the kind of woman who made hard-candy topiary trees and figgy puddings. The figgy puddings were not in the Make it Yourself for Christmas books but something I remembered from a carol. “Oh bring us a figgy pudding and a happy new year,” the line went. I was unsure what a figgy pudding was, but it had the ring of the real thing.

“Exactly what kind of therapy are we up to this week?” my husband asked when I arrived home with 20 Styrofoam balls, 20 flowerpots and 60 pounds of, or roughly 6,000, hard candies, each wrapped in cellophane.

“Hard-candy topiary trees, if you don’t mind,” I said briskly, to gain the offensive before he could mention my last project, a hand-knitted sweater which would have cost $60 at Jax, the distinction being that, had I bought it at Jax, it would very probably be finished. “Twenty of them. Decorative. Amusing.”

He said nothing.

Christmas presents,” I said.

There was a moment of silence as we contemplated the dining-room table, covered now with shifting dunes of lemon drops.

“Presents for whom?” he said.

“Your mother might like one.”

“That leaves nineteen.”

“All right. Let’s just say they’re centerpieces.”

“Let’s just say that if you’re making twenty centerpieces, I hope you’re under contract to Chasen’s. Or maybe to Hilton.”

“That’s all you know,” I countered, wittily.

Provisions for the figgy puddings were rather more a problem. The Vogue Book of Menus and Recipes made no mention of figgy pudding, nor did my cookbook, although the latter offered a recipe for “Steamed Date or Fig Pudding.” This had a tentative sound, and so I merely laid in 20 pounds of dried figs and planned, when the time came, to improvise from there. I thought it unnecessary to mention the puddings to my husband just yet.

Meanwhile, work on the topiary trees proceeded. Pebbles were gathered from the driveway to line the flowerpots. (“Next time it rains and that driveway washes out,” I was informed, “there’s going to be one unhappy Santa’s Helper around here.”) Lengths of doweling to be used as stalks were wrapped with satin ribbons. The 20 Styrofoam balls glistened with candies, each affixed with an artfully concealed silk pin. (As it happened I had several thousand silk pins left from the time I planned to improvise a copy of a Grès evening dress.) There was to be a lemon-drop tree and an ice-mint tree and a cinnamon-lump tree. There was to be a delicate crystallized-violet tree. There was to be a witty-licorice tree.

All in all, the operation went more smoothly than any I had undertaken since I was 16 and won third prize in the Sacramento Valley Elimination Make-It-Yourself-With-Wool Contest. I framed graceful rejoinders to compliments. I considered the probability that I. Magnin or Neiman-Marcus would press me to make trees for them on an exclusive basis. All that remained was to set the candy balls upon their stalks—that and the disposition of the figs—and I had set an evening aside for this crowning of the season’s achievement.

I suppose that it was about seven o’clock when I placed the first candy-covered ball on the first stalk. Because it did not seem overly secure, I drilled a deeper hole in the second ball. That one, too, once on its stalk, exhibited a certain tendency to sway, but then so does the Golden Gate Bridge. I was flushed with imminent success, visions of candy trees come true all around me. I suppose it was about eight o’clock when I placed the last ball on the last stalk, and I suppose it was about one minute after eight when I heard the first crack, and I suppose it was about 8:15 (there were several minutes of frantic shoring maneuvers) when my husband found me sitting on the dining-room floor, crying, surrounded by 60 pounds of scattered lemon drops and ice-mints and cinnamon lumps and witty licorice.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we get the grout left over from when you were going to retile the bathroom, and make a ceramic candy floor.”

“If you think you’re going to get any figgy puddings,” I said, “you’d better think again.”

But I had stopped crying, and we went out for an expensive dinner. The next morning I gathered up the candies and took them to Girl Scout headquarters, presumably to be parceled into convalescents’ nut cups by some gnome Brownie. The Styrofoam balls I saved. A clever woman should be able to do something very attractive for Easter with Styrofoam balls and 20 pounds of figs.

Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post (December 3, 1966). Copyright © 1966 by Joan Didion. Reprinted by permission.