Why Do We Make Fun of Fruitcake?
It’s one of the oldest and most delicious holiday traditions.
A long-running joke holds that there is only one fruitcake in the whole world. It is epitome of re-gifting -- unwanted, passed along, never eaten. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, the Chamber of Commerce holds an annual Fruitcake Toss, where loaves of what has been called "the hapless dessert" are catapulted into oblivion by hand throw, pneumatic gun, or canon. (The event even has its own Facebook page.) The record is 1,420 feet, set by a group of Boeing engineers who used compressed air pumped into a mock artillery piece by an exercise bike.
The cake that gets no respect dates back to the Middle Ages, when dried fruits and nuts were luxuries, mainly reserved for holidays. In the 16th century, the English tradition of Twelfth Night cake to commemorate the end of the Christmas season was a fruitcake baked with a coin or a dried bean, establishing the finder as King or Queen of the celebration.
It's a wonder that the cakes ever got made. As renowned food historian Alan Davidson explained in the "Oxford Companion to Food," sugar was cut from loaves, then pounded and sieved; butter was rinsed in rosewater; and various kinds of fruit had to be dried. No wonder the laborious effort was saved for the most special occasion of the year, Christmas.
For a while during the early 18th century, fruitcake was actually outlawed in Europe because it was considered "sinfully" rich. By the Victorian era, preparation often began months before, allowing for a long boozy soak. Queen Victoria supposedly put aside a fruitcake that she received as a birthday gift, in the belief that waiting a year to consume it showed restraint and decorum.
Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory" refers to "fruitcake weather," and the tradition may be simply a function of the seasons. "Fruits were put up and canned in the summer," said Frederick Opie, Ph.D., Professor of History and Society at Babson College in Boston. "What could you make that was festive but not fresh for the holiday? You'd go down to the canning center in your basement. Rum and hard cider were dirt cheap in colonial America, as was molasses, a by-product of sugar."
In the early 20th century, nuts were added to recipes in the rural South and Southwest, where they were cheap and plentiful, leading to the pejorative expression about someone who acts strangely: "nuttier than a fruitcake." Claxton, Georgia, and Corsicana, Texas, vie for the title of "fruitcake capital of the world." Preparation for the holiday season begins in August -- bakeries in these two towns bake millions of pounds of cake every year. And that joke about just one fruitcake in the world? Them's fighting words.
Watch Martha make a classic fruitcake, a tradition she still follows today, in this throwback video: