Fruitcake lives a sad life as the reigning punchline of holiday food. The much maligned dessert has a well-worn reputation. When we think of fruitcake we think of a thick, dense brick of a cake. One dotted with candied fruits and nuts. Perhaps it’s doused in rum, or some other alcohol, to which Truman Capote quipped, “that’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Maybe it’s the spawn of a Jell-O mold or a relic of your grandma’s 1960s kitchen. Whatever it is, it’s ugly.
Americans have spent decades rolling our eyes at this beast and its questionable taste, texture, and toughness. In a now classic “Tonight Show” monologue, Johnny Carson claimed, “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” That was in 1985 and that attitude has prevailed ever since. Nowhere is this more evident than in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The city is home to the Great Fruitcake Toss, an annual event where people compete to see who can fling the dessert the furthest using a variety of mechanical contraptions.
But has it always been this way? And more importantly, should it be? As is usually the case when history is long and complicated, the answer is both yes and no.
While fruitcakes date back to ancient Rome, the dense, spiced cakes didn’t take on a life of their own until the modern era. Fruitcakes became holiday staples as early as the 1800s and were considered an easy way to share the gifts of each year’s harvest. However, rather than eat them right away, people would wait an entire year before serving them, out of superstition that it would bring good luck for the new year. While the cakes can withstand 365 days without refrigeration, they were rarely properly preserved. Thus, this tradition helped the cake achieve its reputation as a tough, rock hard dessert.
As evidence of their long shelf life, a 106-year-old fruitcake was found in Antartica earlier this year. And yes, it is believed to be edible. The cake is thought to have belonged to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who even in the most frigid of circumstances, left his dessert untouched.
However, fruitcakes’ reputation as stale, whiskey-drenched doorstoppers is very much an American phenomenon. Despite their questionable texture, they still maintain their status as special occasion treats overseas. To this day, they remain the British royal wedding cake of choice, ever since a plum fruit cake was served at Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840. Prince Charles and Princess Diana honored the tradition, as did Prince William and Kate Middleton. A slice from the most recent royal wedding even sold at auction for $7,500 dollars. That sale alone more than defies the cake’s bargain bin status and gave fruitcake its biggest ego boost yet.
In terms of price point, fruit cake’s reputation as a cheap dessert didn’t emerge until the early twentieth century. By the 1900s, thanks to increasing industrialization and inexpensive access to fruits and nuts, Southern bakeries were able to mass produce the dessert. Because of these conveniences and their remarkably long shelf life, the cakes were able to be sold via mail order catalog across the United States. All of a sudden there was a cheap, accessible, and easily gift-able cake on the national scene. They filled an untapped market, resulting in quick proliferation and near ubiquity.
While commercial saturation was near, the tide against fruitcake didn’t turn overnight. During the 1940s and ’50s, prominent eateries like the Collins Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas and the Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia emerged as the premier purveyors of the dessert. These dueling cities continually duke it out for the title of “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” a somewhat dubious distinction that wasn’t always that way.
In fact, for a while, people actually liked receiving fruitcakes as presents. An article published in a 1953 issue of Los Angeles Times, unironically exclaimed, “Some like them dark. Some like them light. But everybody likes fruitcake!” In 1958 a headline in the Christian Science Monitor read, “What Could Be a Better Gift That Fruitcake?” Most people today would say anything.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about fruitcake is that they have to taste bad. The problem doesn’t lie within the cake itself, but the ingredients and recipes people tend to use. The brighter-than-a-Christmas-tree, neon, jellied fruits that top many cakes are often the major culprit. If you replace those saccharine candies with figs, dates, glacé cherries, and apricots, you’ll end up with a much better tasting cake, albeit a less kitschy one. Also brandy. Use brandy. It’s the ideal liquor for the job.
Or you could just leave it off your dessert spread altogether if you don’t want to risk contaminating your apple and pumpkin pies by sheer association.
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