Don’t Blame the Fruitcake, Blame the Recipe

“Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather.”

—Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

My all-time favorite Christmas card features an illustration by Edward Gorey in which assorted Victorians, in long coats and furry hats, gather to pitch a fruitcake through a hole in the ice. This is, frankly, just what most of us are tempted to do with fruitcake.

In fact, we now even have a more-or-less national holiday called Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3rd, in which those afflicted with fruitcakes are encouraged, publicly, to chuck them. In some places—such as Manitou Springs, Colorado—repudiated fruitcakes are launched into the ether with everything from slingshots to exercise-bike-powered cannons. These are people who really don’t like fruitcake.

It’s not clear just when and why the fruitcake took such a plunge in popularity. Some sources blame Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who famously claimed that there was just one fruitcake in the world, passed annually from family to family in a sort of holiday-season game of Hot Potato. Others claim that the whole awful-fruitcake mystique is irrational and unjust. Fruitcake, properly made, they argue, is yummy; commercial fruitcake production, which began in the early 20th century, was the root of all evil, turning out dry, tasteless fruitcake-ish bricks that turned the population permanently off.

 

Watch the Manitou Springs Fruitcake Toss celebrations in 2013.

 

The fact is, historically, we’ve always adored fruitcake.

Fruitcake is a dish with a long history, dating back at least to the Romans, who made theirs with raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and barley mash. The result was both energy-rich and long-lasting, and was said to be a favored food of the Roman legions. (One modern anti-fruitcake writer suggests that, in a pinch, the cakes may also have come in handy as catapult ammunition.)

With added honey and spices, fruitcake became increasingly popular in the Middle Ages, especially as dried fruits became available, imported from Portugal and the eastern Mediterranean. It really took off, though, in the 16th century, when cheap sugar began to arrive in Europe from the Caribbean slave plantations. Sugar was used to make candied fruit, a sticky sweet and prime ingredient of fruitcake, the result of steeping fruits—herries, plums, pears, and figs, as well as the exotic oranges, lemons, citrons, and limes—in sugar syrup until they reached a state in which they were preserved “long after the period fixed by Nature for their duration,” wrote 18th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

The Victorians were enthusiastic consumers of fruitcake. Queen Victoria’s wedding cake was a fruitcake (topped with a spun-sugar figure of Britannia), as were those of Prince Charles and Princess Di, and, more recently, Prince William and Kate Middleton. In the 19th century, it was customary for wedding guests to place a slice of the celebratory fruitcake under their pillows, in hopes of dreaming of the person they would marry.

Author Russell Baker claims that fruitcakes last forever, which isn’t far from true.

Shakier is Baker’s claim to be in possession of a fruitcake baked by his several-times-great grandfather as a gift for President George Washington. The president, he explains, refused it on the grounds that it was “unseemly for Presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though they were only eight inches in diameter.”

Picture of a fruitcake

Vietnamese fruitcakes, like the one pictured above, are very similar to Vietnamese moon cakes—which are used to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Harvest. To recreate this fruitcake, visit Viet World Kitchen. Photograph by Andrea Nguyen/Creative Commons 2.0

Which brings us to another key characteristic of fruitcakes: they’re dense. According to Harper’s Index, the average fruitcake is as dense as mahogany. (Some people recommend that their best use is as doorstops.) Density derives from their composition: fruitcakes have a high ratio of fruit and nuts to batter. The average fruitcake weighs about two pounds; Russell Baker’s claim that he dropped a piece at Christmas dinner at the age of fifteen and shattered every bone in his right foot is almost certainly false.

Sugar is a key player in the fruitcake’s legendary longevity—high sugar content inhibits bacterial growth—though fruitcake also gets a preservative boost from the alcohol (rum, brandy, sherry, port, whiskey) in which the cakes are traditionally soaked. In Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” first published in 1956, seven-year-old Buddy (Capote) and his elderly cousin Sook prepare to celebrate Christmas by baking thirty fruitcakes. It’s a four-day undertaking that involves gathering windfall pecans, going to town by buggy to buy cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla, raisins, walnuts, and canned pineapple, and heading to the bootlegger for a quart of illegal whiskey—which, when the bootlegger discovers that they plan to use it for fruitcakes, announces “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”

A lot of people would agree. Fruitcake aficionados, however, such as Susan Purdy, author of A Piece of Cake (Atheneum, 1989), point out that fruitcake is only as good as its ingredients. Rather than the day-glo green and orange candied fruit sold in supermarkets, she recommends dried fruits—peaches, apricots, mangoes, and pears. Marie Rudisill, nicknamed “the Fruitcake Lady,” a relative of Truman Capote and cousin Sook, claims that fruitcakes are the “queen of cakes,” and published a book of 19th-century family recipes to prove it, including such delectables as Peacock Fruitcake, Chocolate Fruitcake, and Civil War Fruitcake.

If you don’t care for traditional fruitcake, some suggest, try branching out.

There are numerous multicultural fruitcake traditions, among them the more cake-like German stollen, Caribbean black cake (packed with raisins, currants, and prunes, and doused in rum), Italian panforte (stuffed with almonds, hazelnuts, and orange peel), and old-fashioned Bishop’s Bread or Stained-Glass Cake, a fruitcake so densely packed with crystallized fruit that, when sliced and held to the light, it looks like a jewel-colored stained-glass window.

Or, if all else fails, you can donate your fruitcake to science. Each year Richmond’s Science Museum of Virginia hosts a post-Christmas fruitcake celebration in which fruitcakes are subjected to scientific experiments, attempting, for example, to ascertain whether they can float or conduct electricity, how they respond to quick-freezing with dry ice, and whether or not they can be ignited with a torch. (Yes.) Participants can even drop their rejected fruitcakes via parachute or loft them into the sky with helium balloons.


 References

  • Baker, Russell. “Fruitcake Is Forever.” New York Times, 25 December, 1983.
  • Rudisill, Marie. Fruitcake. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.