To eat it, not eat it, or re-gift it. That is the question.
Johnny Carson, comedian and original TV host of The Tonight Show, once said, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep passing it around.”
Mmmm. When was the last time you ate fruitcake? Or received it as a gift and . . .
The truth is that fruitcakes last a long time. Maybe not as long as the fruitcake baked by Fidelia Ford in 1878 – still preserved over 145 years later. Or British explorer Robert Scott’s fruitcake, which he brought to Antarctica during his expedition in 1910-1913. No one has tasted either but claim they look edible.
Fruitcake has quite a resume. According to Culinary Agents, “it’s been to outer space, served as the world’s first energy bar, and is an international $100 million business.”
Pretty good for a re-gift.
Head back to ancient Rome to meet fruitcake’s early ancestors. The Roman battalions were always looking for ways to sustain their soldiers in battle. The result was an ancient “energy bar” made from barley, honey, wine, dried fruit, pine nuts, raisins, and pomegranate seeds, called satura.
When Rome fell, variations of satura spread. Dried fruit and sugar became more available and less expensive. Italians created panaforte and panettone; Germans produced stollen; and Brits devised plum, figgy, or Christmas pudding (no plums included). According to Culinary Agents, new ingredients were gradually introduced, like citrus peel, pineapple, plums, dates, pears and cherries. “During Christmas in the nineteenth century, it was traditional for English nobles to feed poor carolers with a slice of plum pudding.”
Begging and figgy pudding became famous.
New traditions appeared for serving fruitcake as gifts or on special occasion. For centuries, British royals served fruitcake at their weddings. The list is long – beginning with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince William and Kate Middleton, and now-King Charles and Camilla. Princess Diana’s cake cost $40,000 and Kate Middleton’s cost $78,000.
Twenty-seven years after Charles and Diana were married, a slice of their wedding fruitcake sold for $6,000.
What makes fruitcake so appealing? Is it the alcohol (brandy, whisky, or rum)? Maybe saving grace is baked into the cake? Robert Sietsema said after a fruitcake taste-testing for The Village Voice, that the Trappist Monks of Kentucky and the Monks at the Holy Cross Abby in Virginia were the best. These days you can go the Amazon and find 34 fruitcakes made by monks.
How did such an old and honored tradition get a bum rap?
It’s called commercialization. In 1896, Collins Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas introduced mass production. Today they make over 1.6 million fruitcakes a year. Other bakeries followed, like Claxton Bakery in Georgia. Mass-produced fruitcakes are alcohol free and taste like they came off an assembly line. George Paul wrote in Many Eats, “most mass-market fruitcakes’ low quality has turned the once luxurious dessert fit for kings into a comedy punchline.”
Fruitcakes have been called everything from a glorified brick to the most hated cake in baking. A. Lee Martinez’ comments sum it up, “Reality is like a fruitcake; pretty enough to look at but with all sorts of nasty things lurking beneath the surface.”
Whether you love it, leave it, or re-gift it, consider celebrating National Fruitcake Month or checking out the Guinness World Record for the largest fruitcake. Made in Claxton Bakery, it weighed 9,596 pounds. Or nibbling on the world’s most expensive fruitcake priced at $1.72 million, complete with diamonds.
Make sure the diamonds don’t stick in your teeth.
Be nutty as a fruitcake. Enjoy!