Outsider Art

Texas “Pastry Queen” Rebecca Rather branches out with a holiday tree for the birds.

October 28, 2011

Outdoor greenery usually comes indoors for holiday decorating, but Rebecca Rather isn’t a “usually” kind of person. “Why not keep the greenery outside and decorate it there?” she says. “That way we can enjoy it and nature can enjoy it.”

Each December, the acclaimed “Pastry Queen” throws a tree-trimming party outside her Sugar and Smoke Bakery (formerly Rather Sweet Bakery) in historic Fredericksburg, Texas. Now in its seventh year, the afternoon gathering celebrates the fruits of the year’s labor with, well, fruits. Dehydrated ones. “Since we're in the food business, we naturally enjoy edible ornaments,” she says.


First up is the tree, one from a local tree farm. It stands in simple beauty at one corner of the courtyard while friends, family, and coworkers make their way to a central picnic table. The table’s weathered yet still-vibrant turquoise hue makes for a blue sky of sorts on an overcast fall day. At its center is a long wooden dough bowl full of cranberries, a beautiful sight in itself atop such a blue canvas. Ribbons, fishing line, and large needles sit nearby.

The littlest guests are dressed in flouncy, sparkling, girly-girl dresses in honor of the occasion. Their eyes light up when the rest of the tree-trimming goodies—thin slices of organic grapefruit, orange, lemon, starfruit, apple, pineapple, and pear slices, plus a Southwestern touch, slim green New Mexican chiles—begin streaming out of the bakery.

“This is a vegetable ’cause it’s green,” Nadine pronounces to her sister Paloma. “Honey, believe it or not, it’s actually fruit,” Rather says sweetly, a statement that sends both girls into deep thought.

Hot chocolate with marshmallows warms up the bunch as they focus on the task at hand. Storytelling and ornament making is punctuated with laughter, especially when Rather turns one of her cranberry strings into a necklace, and her friend Deann Ketchum gives Rather's dog Beau his very own ruby red ornament, not to eat but to wear. “He likes it!” says young tree-trimmer Alexa Calderon. “Look, he’s smiling!”

After the naturally glistening accessories are ready for their close-up, rustic pottery bowls overflowing with them are placed under the tree for easy access.

“What can we put at the top?” Ketchum asks the girls. Their eyes dart about the courtyard frantically until one spots a few lemons by a pitcher of iced tea. “Lemons!” they decree, racing over to procure them. Ketchum then finds a skewer to prepare them for resting atop the tiptop branches.

After the tree is crowned with a trio of the bright yellow fruit, everyone there helps encircle the tree with cranberry garlands before surveying spots for just the right slice or pod of fruit.

The girls direct while the adults smile and follow orders, adding ornaments to the higher reaches and moving a few things here or there for visual balance. Soon, the tour de force is complete.

“There’s such a sense of accomplishment when we all come together to get something fun done,” Rather says. In this case, that something is a new take on tradition, “one that I’ll always love,” she adds. “And one I hope these little girls will never forget.” By the looks of things, no worries there.

How to Dry Slices of Fruit
Set the oven at its lowest temperature. Grease a baking sheet with cooking spray or line it with a silicone mat. Slice fruit as thinly as possible. A mandoline is ideal for this purpose. Dip the sliced fruit in lemon-lime soda (or ascorbic acid) to keep it from discoloring. Punch a small hole near the top edge of each slice with a skewer. Lay the fruit slices in a single layer on the prepared pan and bake them for 4 to 6 hours or until the slices are completely dried (or use an electric dehydrator and follow its instructions). Slip ribbon or a metal ornament hook through the hole before hanging it on a tree.

Wild about the Tree

Birds—and their dining competitors, wily squirrels—love fruit. And for the most part, the vitamin-and mineral-packed goodies are fine for them to eat except for citrus seeds and stone-fruit pits.

Outfitted with dried edibles, the tree usually lasts a couple of weeks before it begins looking scraggly.

“The animals and birds really go for it,” Rather says.

Buy organic fruits to avoid pesticide residue on the skin, which can be harmful to the birds, she says.

And do dry your own fruit, or purchase organic dried fare, to avoid feeding the animals commercial products with preservatives.

Some ideas:

  • Dried or fresh apple and pear slices, deseeded
  • Fresh cranberries laced into garlands
  • Dried pineapple slices
  • Dried starfruit slices
  • Dried kiwifruit slices
  • Dried whole or sliced figs
  • Fresh chile peppers
  • Dried slices of citrus fruits (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit)
  • Dried Roma or plum tomatoes
  • Popcorn
  • Stars or other shapes cut from tortillas or bread
  • Sugar-free cookies baked with birdseed and cut into shapes

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