The air temperature goes screaming down like a kamikaze when the sun sets at 13,000 feet in the mountains, and we wore fingerless woolen mittens in our tent drinking brandy, the two sinewy old Argentines, the Polish-American photographer and myself.
It was one of those hard glittering nights in the Andes - maybe there aren't any other kind - when the Southern Cross dangles nearby like tiny diamonds against a black woman's skin.
We sat drinking and talking for hours, my friend Zbigniew Bzdak translating into English the lives of these guides on Aconcagua, at 22,834 feet the highest mountain in the Americas. Senor Fernando Grajelos, with his famous theatrical shock of white hair, and his fellow climbing master whose name I can't recall, described decades of adventures amongst the foolish tourists and ragged crags.
We spoke more, though, of simple human aspirations, of the struggles of hard-working men and their families left down below in the vineyards and farms of Mendoza Province. We came around to a pretty serious proposition of marriage to one of four or five daughters, and I was awfully tempted. Strong, honest fathers make good children. Ah well ... another path not taken. Maybe in some alternate universe I'm growing grapes, bouncing babies on my knee, and going to an analyst twice a week like all the other notoriously self-absorbed Argentines.
At 3:30 a.m. or so later that night, we tromped along the ice-clean line between a glacier and the steep, rubble-strewn valley walls. Soon after sunrise, we reached the magnificent 10,000-foot vertical cliffs of the south face - absolutely frightening. A Frenchman in our party, who hadn't even stayed up all night, was sure his head was going to explode from altitude sickness and scenery overload.
Ancient sedimentary taffy curled up into the fast-transforming clouds, which swiftly merged and parted around giant ice sheets and slabs of rock the size of towns. We really are just gnats on the skin of this planet.
For Thanksgiving, a few days later, Bzdak and I foraged up some turkey in one of the city of Mendoza's awe-inspiring restaurants. Settled as much by Italians as Spaniards, Mendoza is the wine-making center of the nation, and every neighborhood cafe offers a riot of conversation and food worthy of an 8,000-mile trip. As afternoon dissolved into siesta and shops folded shut, I sat on a park bench near the Italian Consulate, dozing in the southern hemisphere's hot November sun, petrified glacier dust still tickling my sinuses.
The sudden numbness brandy brings to the lips brought all these memories stampeding back to mind the other night. In the temporary absence of my tea-totaling wife, a little of the Napoleon otherwise destined to flavor my Mom's fruitcake recipe somehow found its way into a glass, and then into me.
Fruitcake has a bad reputation, and most men probably would confess to an array of other sins before admitting they like it, far less make it. But with eight eggs and a pound of butter - not to mention all that good French brandy, candied fruit and sugar - Mom's fruitcake is nothing to be ashamed of.
At 76, Mom's still got a lively mind but finds it harder to get around, and makes all her trips through the pages of books. Nor does she make fruitcake anymore, and I can understand why: Mixing her recipe works up a sweat.
Mom's fruitcake has been many places, as she often gave it to me to take along on my journeys, which I always used to plan in the weeks around Christmas - I had some on that hung-over walk to Aconcagua, some on the endless switchbacks down into Copper Canyon, some during an anxious wait for a lost passport in the Hotel Touristas in Abancay, Peru.
The years dwindle down and down toward a day when creating her recipes will be one of the best ways to recall Mom, the special flavors of the holidays providing keys back into a warm old kitchen and her simple gestures of love.
I trust you're relishing your own family traditions and tastes this holiday season, recording it all in your minds and hearts, putting it all in memory's pantry to re-heat on some distant day.
Best White Fruitcake
This is the official recipe. I ratchet up the brandy and fruit a little, and put in fewer raisins.
2 oz. candied orange peel
8 oz. candied cherries
8 oz. candied pineapple
1 lb. white raisins
1/2 C. Brandy
1 lb. butter
1 lb. (3 1/2 cups) powdered sugar
8 eggs, separated
1 lb. pecan halves
3 C. flour
Soak all fruit in brandy for at least a day. Cream butter and sugar; beat in egg yolks. Add nuts to fruit. Sprinkle 1 cup of flour over fruit and nuts, then fold into creamed mixture. Stir in remaining flour, Beat egg whites until stiff; fold into mixture. spoon into greased and floured loaf pans. Bake in 275 degree oven about 2 hours or until done, with a shallow pan of hot water on the bottom shelf of the oven. Wrap in brandy soaked cheesecloth and store in air-tight cans of plastic wrap. Yields three 9x5 cakes.