Ju.D Lao’s Fruitcake Reminds Me of Truman Capote
Ju.D's Fruitcake changed her life and redesigned Philippine desserts
I remember meeting Ju.D Lao for the first time, some 16 years ago in 1996. She was bursting with energy and she wanted my husband and I to have coffee and cake with her in her Green Meadows home. The coffee was very strong, and the cake was fabulous.
“What cake is this?” I asked. She said it was a fruitcake.
I was bedazzled. At that time, the only fruitcakes in the Philippines were cheap, P100 desserts (less than $21.50) that came in simple boxes. Once opened, they overloaded one with a disagreeable liquor scent.
And yet, these cheap fruitcakes were popular gifts. They were inexpensive yet packaged well enough. They reflected the Christmas holiday well enough. I never ate them. Fruitcake sucks, I believed.
My late mother, however, was very economical. She would freeze all the fruitcakes we were given and eat a slice now and then throughout the year until they were all gone. They were more digestible in the freezer over time.
We lived in a home filled with six people, five maids and oftentimes, cousins and uncles who visited and spent a few days with us. But the fruitcake was always eaten exclusively by Mama.
Now Ju.D Lao was serving me a delicious fruitcake. I became a convert immediately. “How, why did you do this?” I asked.
Ju.D said in a restaurant in Europe she ate a delicious dessert. She asked what it was and was surprised to learn that it was a fruitcake. “I immediately decided then that I would make a delicious fruitcake for the Philippines.”
Ju.D’s fruitcake is her annual Christmas gift to the Philippines – unusual for a Buddhist. Yet every detail of her fruitcake is reflective of the way she leads her life, from choosing only the freshest ingredients to the refusal to use preservatives; the hiring of out-of-school youth so that they learn about baking and get paid for doing it, to donating unused ingredients to orphanages and Catholic nunneries. Even the design of her fruitcake box and its first class packaging is her personal design.
A barely noticeable fish on the box, for her, means “Fish be unto you.” The duck, which is larger and embossed in gold foil, is there simply because Ju.D loves ducks. For 40 years she resisted commercializing her fruitcake to reserve its homemade personal quality.
The Philippines’ Fruitcake Lady
She is the Philippines’ Fruitcake Lady. Her delicious fruitcake is strictly high end, purchased by socialites, celebrities, politicians et. al.
She loves innovation and made the world’s first Fruitcake cookie, The Chewy Chewkies. When Starbucks hit the Philippines, she invented Ju.D Blue, a coffee fruitcake using Blue Mountain coffee. She also has a prune fruitcake and a Cranberry apricot and ginger fruitcake. Her delicious ginger cookies were baked without using eggs for the Buddhist nuns in Taiwan. She used only young ginger for its exceptional tang. But when the nuns kept on sharing them with guests visiting their abode, the ginger cookies were added to her baking line because her clients just loved them.
Ju.D’s fruitcake landed her in a cooking television show in Taiwan, where she is considered more of a celebrity than in the Philippines. But she has guested in many Philippine TV shows, too. She wrote two cookbooks, and won Three National Awards for Best Fruitcake Manufacturing, Marketing Excellence and for Product Quality.
She has had many interesting experiences because of her fruitcake. As a home business, people call her home phone number to place their orders. Oftentimes, lonely elderly strangers would call and tell her their life stories. She would listen for 45 minutes, knowing that it meant a loss of sales.
But for Ju.D, it’s not about business. It’s about people. She recalled when a woman woke up from a coma, and the first thing she asked for was Ju.D’s Chewy Chewkies. Ju.D was so surprised, she sent her driver to deliver the Chewy Chewkies for free. I am not kidding.
Ju.D also recalls the time when at 4 a.m. a group of burly men knocked at her door. The Lao family, fearfully, peeked out the window as one among them spoke to the maid. Then one man pulled out his phone and said, “Sir, ubos na ang maga fruitcake niya.” (Sir, they have no more fruitcakes). Obviously, a politician had sent his security to buy fruitcake.
A woman told Ju.D that one time she was in Germany and was given a particularly delicious dessert. It was a cake with cream on top. When the woman asked the waiter about the dessert, the waiter kept saying, “Jud. Jud.” Finally, he brought out the box of the fruitcake, Ju.D’s box. Many people use Ju.D’s box to hold letters or documents because they are so beautiful and sturdy. Ju.D was quite delighted to hear that story from a customer.
A Christmas Memory
Here’s the thing. There are businesses that exist for the bottom line. And there are businesses that are created from the heart and that adhere to one’s life philosophy. This is Ju.D’s business, a business she does every year. It’s a sincere business.
In a way, as I reflect on Ju.D’s fruitcake, I remember a short story written by Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory.” It’s about a child who is close to an elderly lady. All year, the lady saves her pennies to make fruitcake, and she sends them to people she has only met once or twice, and to people she doesn’t know at all. She even sends one to then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I don’t know if Ju.D ever read that story. But I think she should, because the commonality in both instances is the love of giving. Ju.D spends the entire year working with several charities, but her high end fruitcake is her gift to people who have more. Happy Holidays.