The security guards at the Capitol had pretty much the same reaction. They laughed. The group went on, straight to the congressman with the red bow tie and bike pin who had made what the Washington Post once called the most ridiculed holiday food. About 300 loaves of it.
Each fruitcake is wrapped in red and paired with an small (think the kind you get on an airplane) bottle of pear brandy from the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon. A small card is attached. It reads:
Enjoyed by FewAppreciated by manyQuestioned by allWhether as a metaphor for our political process oras a symbol of Holiday Tradition,Please accept it as a personal token of thanks for your friendship and support.
At the bottom is the signature of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).
The Portland legislator has been making fruitcakes for more than 30 years. The ritual feels almost religious, at least as described by Blumenauer in his essay, "The Zen of Fruitcake," which he often hands out along with his homemade gift.
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. 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.
Blumenauer swears it's not just him. Somewhere out there, there is an underground fruitcake scene. The congressman went on A.M. Northwest last year to discuss his fruitcakes. "It's kind of a secret society, people who make fruitcakes," he said. The hosts went crazy.
"Really," he insisted. "You watch them dig the citron out of the bin, and you give them a knowing smile. They're part of the ritual."
Blumenauer says this week that he has heard some people look forward to the fruitcakes. Although he is often self-deprecating when talking about his culinary creation — he doesn't cook much, given his profession — he also stands up for them.
"People say nutty as a fruitcake," Blumenauer says. "My fruitcake has no nuts."
After he finishes baking and wrapping, there are the deliveries -- which is why two staffers and two ice cream makers were headed to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.
These two ice cream makers, Kim and Tyler Malek, cousins who run the popular Portland ice cream shop Salt & Straw, received their first Earl Blumenauer fruitcake last year. After the last congressional session of the year ends, the congressman heads to his district to hand out the rest of his stash in a series of what he calls, "drive-by cakings." Tyler, who makes the ice cream, is always trying to think of new flavors, as Salt & Straw's menu changes frequently, and Salt & Straw had always been a fan of the representative, who once held a Sugar Summit in Portland.
This all ended with the small-batch fruit cake artisan putting on a hairnet and helping to make an eponymous ice cream flavor. Earl Blumenauer Fruitcake ice cream is now the second most popular ice cream flavor at Salt & Straw. All the proceeds benefit the the Portland Community Cycling Center's Holiday Bike Drive.
Blumenauer has been dropping off the unloved and stereotyped cakes to his unloved and stereotyped colleagues all week whenever he gets a spare minute. Those have been hard to find, given that Congress has yet to fund the government before the holidays. The tight schedule Wednesday led to moments where the Congressman said nice things about his Republican colleagues to his visitors from Portland and then stepped away to talk to reporters or staffers about how Republicans had made the spending bill unpalatable.
The representative handed fruitcake ice cream to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan in the hallway outside the House chamber, and insisted the former Republican vice presidential nominee try some right there. Protestations about a lack of utensils followed, which were silenced after the wooden spoon under the ice cream's lid was revealed. Over the course of the day's Oregon fruitcake trail, variations on "But there's a spoon in there!" silenced the excuses of many people who seemed skeptical of impromptu snacking, even in the name of constituent services and bipartisanship.
"I'm from a dairy state," Ryan said, wooden spoon in hand, "so I guess I have to."
His verdict? "The ice cream part was phenomenal. The fruitcake part is ok." Laughs were shared, bipartisan consensus was reached on the ice cream's deliciousness, and the group, carrying one less fruitcake, shuffled down the hall. Kim asked Blumenauer's communications director if he could send her the photo of Ryan eating the ice cream. Tyler regretted not giving Ryan his card -- the Wisconsin representative's sister works in Baskin Robbins' test kitchen. "They could have been friends!" Kim said.
A few feet away, Blumenauer had moved on to talk to a TV reporter. "It's not a happy time," he said. He said he and his Democratic colleagues had "no degree of enthusiasm" for the spending bill, and the riders inserted in it by Republican legislators. "The more people look at it, the less likely they are to support it."
Earlier, Blumenauer shared some fruitcake ice cream with Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), who noted that he also had a holiday gift-giving tradition. Moonshine chocolates. "Real moonshine," he explained. "Not the fake stuff you pay taxes on."
There were other issues tempered by the (unproven) calming powers of fruitcake. Blumenauer was late to embark on his Oregon-infused goodwill tour due to a briefing at the White House. He said he had hoped to bring some of the ice cream to the White House Holiday party on Monday night, to share with Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Salt & Straw in October while campaigning with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). He was afraid it wouldn't survive security. Blumenauer told the Maleks that he did bring some to the Situation Room on Wednesday, and that it had been passed around the table.
When the group returned to the office, Blumenauer was rounding up dishes and ice cream to bring to a Ways and Means Committee meeting, perhaps hoping that if the members could ingest the metaphor for their ever ridiculed job, the problems might evaporate.
Blumenauer often says he hopes that the act of giving the fruitcakes will help people who don't always agree — like he and soon to be Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan — work together in the future. He repeats it every year.
As one of his staffers noted, "You've got to try, right?"