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Thursday
Dec062007

What a Fruitcake: The Story of a Holiday Icon

 

Fruitcake 2

Fruitcakes are kind of like Yoda: tiny, full of substance, and totally heavy.

 

However, unlike Yoda, the poor fruitcake is a much lauded rather than beloved icon of pop culture. But why? After all, it has the ingredients for greatness: sugar, fruit, sugar, nuts, sugar. So what gives? Lucky for you, we've taken the time to not only find out more about this holiday treat, but to taste it and give our educated opinion as well.

As it turns out, fruitcakes have a rather-er, rich history, the earliest ones dating back to Roman times, when a dense mixture of nuts, barley mash and various preserved fruits served as long-term sustenance that did not spoil quickly--perfect for crusaders and hunters out on long voyages. When the dried fruits of the Mediterranean traveled to other parts of Europe, the cake evolved into a tradition during nut harvests: each year, a fruitcake would be made with
the nuts of the harvest, which would be then saved and eaten the following year, to kick of the next harvest. Unfortunately the popularity dwindled a bit when fruitcakes were deemed "sinfully rich" by the government in the early 18th century in Europe, and they were relegated to a special-occasion only cake (this is how it became associated with holidays); luckily, these laws became a little more lax later on in the century, and it became a staple of high tea in England.

While it's pretty clear that the fruitcake is rich in tradition, we did not fail to notice that there weren't many stories of it being beloved for its actual taste. In fact there is even evidence to the contrary: Queen Victoria is said to have waited a year to eat a fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste. (Source: What's Cooking America). Hmm, or perhaps it just wasn't yummy?

Although we didn't trace a single incident that brought the cake to America (although we think that it probably had something to do with how well it traveled), we were able to cement the moment it secured its place in culture: in 1913, fruitcake became available for mail order in the USA. And really, it's the ideal type of cake to send: it keeps well, is impervious to most jostling, and stays fresh. In fact, the only drawback would be its weight. The most famous joke about fruitcakes is attributed to Johnny Carson, who joked that there was really only one fruitcake in the world, which was passed from family to family. Although clearly fruitcakes were a lauded item before this point, this seems to be the moment that cemented its status as a ridiculed dessert. 

But really, is that all? The Cakespy crew felt unsatisfied; had we really discovered the secret of the fruitcake? Not yet. So to complete our mission, we invested in one ($12) by Trappist Abbey, a monastery that has been making fruitcakes in Oregon (hey, they say fact is stranger than fiction) for years. The tiny box (approx. The size of a large grapefuit) weighed a pound, and listed its contents as containing 16 servings; this was an incredibly dense little morsel.

As for the taste? Not bad. Head Spy Jessie had never actually tried fruitcake before (!) and so found it to be dense, but pleasing. Mr. Cakespy Danny found it to be amongst the better fruitcakes he'd tried. Both plates were cleaned.

But then something funny happened. No, the cake hadn't been bad. But unlike when there might be say, a chocolate layer cake in the house, there were no idle nibblings at the fruitcake. In fact, even when the house was devoid of all other sugary snacks, the fruitcake sat alone, uneaten.  Even a full week later, not another crumb has been touched; and somehow, we feel that it won't be.

So then...what is it about the fruitcake? Is it too dense? Is it the fact that it is just too sweet...while at the same time as tasting vaguely healthy? Or is it just that in modern times, crusades aside, gingerbread men and yule logs are just too good to pass up in lieu of this traditional, overlooked little fruit-studded gem of history?

We may have to wait longer to find out the secret of the fruitcake; luckily, we think they'll last through it.

Interested in the Trappist Abbey Fruitcake? Check them out online at trappistabbey.org.

This post would not have been possible without the reference of What's Cooking America, Wikipedia, and Hungry Monster.


Bonus: Fruitcake Trivia!

In the early 18th century, fruitcake (called plum cakes) was outlawed entirely throughout Continental Europe. These cakes were considered as "sinfully rich." By the end of the 18th century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake. Source: What's Cooking America.

It was the custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of cake, traditionally a dark fruitcake, under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry. Source: What's Cooking America.

Some well-known American bakers of fruitcake include the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and the Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Both Collin Street and Claxton are southern companies with access to cheap nuts, for which the expression "nutty as a fruitcake" was derived in 1935. Commercial fruitcakes are often sold from catalogs by charities as a fundraiser. Source: Wikipedia.

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Reader Comments (17)

Fruitcake is definitely odd. As a kid I used to help my grandmother make it every year and I never liked it much. Then, as a young mother hosting a big family Christmas, I was seduced into trying a recipe I read in the New Yorker which made it sound as if some incredible breakthrough had been discovered (in fact, I suspect they had discovered the British version of Christmas cake). I recall that it had a layer of marzipan between the cake and the icing. It was a LOT of trouble, but I was undeterred because THIS was going to be the rare fabulous amazing eat-every-crumb fruitcake. Alas.

Just shows you that good writing can seduce you even when you kind of already know better.

Ann at http://www.redactedrecipes.com/" REL="nofollow">Redacted Recipes

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

you know every christmas it's almost automatic that someone offers me a fruitcake..and most often they end up in our kitchen closet for months..but if someone would offer me the same fruit cake you have here..meaning with lots and lots of fruit i'll eat it up in few seconds..yours look absolutely gorgeous!! and as usual very informative post :-)

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterDhanggit

Every year we have a White Elephant gift exchange (it's a gag gift game type-of-thing) and for about 5 years running the same fruitcake was regifted and regifted and regifted and regifted.... see where I'm going with this? I'll have to suss out an edible one, like the Trappist one this year to break tradition!

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterEB

Wow, nice history on your fruitcake.

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterFruit species

Everything I ever wanted to didn't want to know about fruitcake!
A master spy job if there ever was one!
I never cared much for fruitcake, but I love fruitcake cookies!

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterJANET

I know most of these stories, as, well, I'm writing a book about cake. But I have also found that fruitcake is much-maligned without much reason. Nearly every person who says she doesn't like fruitcake hasn't tasted a real fruitcake. We're not talking about some snack factory's cake; we're talking about someone's baked, rum-soaked, delicious, hearty fruitcake.

Fruitcakes are also nearly always what other cakes were—musket cakes, English wedding cakes, ye olde cakes.

There are fruitcake catapults at Santacon every year. There's the annual fruitcake toss. And now there's this: http://operationfruitcake.com/" REL="nofollow">Operation Fruitcake. Kinda funny.

Cotton Mather also asked that fruitcakes be banned from Yale's commencement ceremonies because they caused much revelry.

December 7 | Unregistered Commenterdogfaceboy

That was fascinating! And can I say that I am a weirdo and actually like fruitcake. But I can only take it in small doses!

December 7 | Unregistered CommenterEllo

Seriously -- who knew. You're right about people not having them... so you should throw a contest to send out the remaining bits of your fruitcake!!! You should have 10 more servings left... or you can just send them to me and I'll use them to power my rocket car...

December 8 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Although it is merely an inanimate food item, I am sympathetic towards fruitcake as being the punchline in many a holiday joke.

December 8 | Unregistered CommenterThe Clothes Horse

I love that Queen Victoria factoid.

December 8 | Unregistered CommenterWendyB

what an interesting history of the infamous fruitcake!! it's so funny how the fruitcake ended up with such a negative reputation/the butt of many jokes - c'est la vie :0)

December 8 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

I've never had fruitcake! I've also never understood it's bad rep. Fruit, nuts, and rum never hurt anyone! (Well, maybe too much rum has..)

December 9 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

I have to admit, I've never tasted it.

December 9 | Unregistered CommenterGeggie

This was so much fun to read.
I remember having fruitcake as a kid and rather liking it and being so confused why everyone made fun of it.

December 10 | Unregistered Commenterbella

Ann Glad you liked the writeup! It sounds like you have much more of a history with fruitcake. Funny how some things just don't go away, isn't it?

dhanggit How funny! Maybe you should keep it going and give the fruitcake back to the person the next year, and play dumb about it.

eb Sure, get the Trappist one...if you can carry it! It's a heavy one!

Fruit Species I thought this one might be of interest to you! :-)

Janet what can we say, we're dedicated to finding the truth at the bottom of these pastry stories!

Dogfaceboy I think we should take a road trip next year and do the toss! :-)

Ello I wonder, is the fruitcake you like homemade or store bought?

James I would like to see this rocket car.

Clothes Horse I know! Poor little fruitcake. It never did anything to anyone. :-(

Wendyb That was one of my favorite bits too!

Veggiegirl on the bright side, it looks like doing a vegan fruitcake would not be hard!

Alicia You should give it a try! Would love to hear your feedback.

Geggie Ditto! We want to hear what you think when you do try it!

Bella We wonder, was it homemade or store bought?

December 10 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

what perfect timing! I was just thinking and wondering about fruitcakes the other day. I don't know why I'm somewhat drawn to them, but I seem to be. Thanks for this informative history!

December 12 | Unregistered CommenterEmilie

I would like to propose not to wait until you earn enough cash to order goods! You should take the credit loans or credit loan and feel yourself fine

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