Behold the noble, yet humble, fruitcake! It has been the object of holiday ridicule for years, but does it really deserve the disdain and rancor of Americans? The much maligned holiday tradition has graced the festive tables of European homes for centuries, but in the U.S. the admiration is less than auspicious.
Johnny Carson often joked that there existed only one fruitcake in the world, and it was passed around from family to family at holidays, forever unwanted yet indestructible.
In 1990, he hired a demolition crew to destroy it once and for all. They tried to drag it in chains behind a pickup truck. Railroaders beat it with pickaxes and sledge hammers. A karate master smashed it with his forehead; but the enduring fruitcake reigned victorious.
Emily Dickinson is most remembered for her elliptical poetry, but in her time she was famous for another reason. Her famous Black Cake was a holiday favorite and was a fruitcake made in the fall, wrapped in brandy soaked cheese cloth and sealed in a tin to age and be enjoyed at Christmas. The recipe is available from the Library of America here.
Fruitcake has been celebrated in song and legend sometimes with reverence but many times with humor as the youtube video of “Fruitcake” by the Superions portrays. You will recognize the voice of Fred Schneider of the B-52s. Whether you like fruitcake or not, this video is not to be missed.
Separating Fruitcake Fact and Fiction
Despite modernity’s irreverent attitude toward the stately fruitcake, it has a noble history.
The first fruitcakes were of Roman origin and contained pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins combined into a barley mash. Honey, spices and preserved fruits were not added until the Middle Ages. Because of its long life the Crusaders and hunters traveling far afield carried it with them for sustenance in their travels for long periods of time.
Fruitcakes are holiday fare, but a little known fact is they were also wedding cakes with a very heavy fruit content. They require special handling and baking to obtain successful results. The stories about the first wedding cakes swirl in legend, and most agree it’s difficult to separate social practice from fiction. The popular myth that the fruitcake wedding cake was traditionally broken over the bride’s head by the groom persists in folklore but cannot be proven.
Fruitcake Was Against the Law!
And every 19th century English housewife’s library would not be complete without Mrs. Beeton’s book on household management and with it the recipe for “A Bride’s Cake” and a “Good Christmas Cake.” Mrs. Beeton boldly also included a “Good Plum Cake,” which in the early 18th century, the 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.
It took Queen Victoria to turn the tide as fruitcake became extremely popular at traditional Victorian Tea. 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.
It was the custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of the cake, traditionally a dark fruitcake, under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry.
One of the most likely explanations for the evolution of the fruitcake is that” winter cakes” were baked with preserved fruit and nuts, when there was no fresh fruit available. The more special the occasion, the more fruit was included; hence, wedding cakes demanded a heavy dose of preserved fruit. These heavy cakes often were saturated with liquor and coated with sugar as a means of preserving them without refrigeration proving they were enduring and tenacious.
Lo, the power of myth and legend to design and create our world views is intriguing and mystifying, and the fruitcake is a stunning example. Personally, I never met a fruitcake I didn’t like, but then I am a member of the distinguished society of discriminating folk with a delicate palate able to appreciate the marriage of flavors, textures and, indeed, the complexity of fruitcake. Perhaps it’s the complexity of this holiday delight that confounds so many. It’s not single-minded and mushy like a twinkie, nor does it contain voluptuous amounts chocolate—perhaps that’s why it’s fallen out of favor over time. If a fruitcake happens to come your way this holiday season, give it a chance. Ponder the spicy elegance, savor the epicurean union of nuts and preserved fruit, and luxuriate in its complexity. You might like it!