19# Fruitcake: the gift that keeps on giving
American journalist and humorist Calvin Trillin theorized that there is only one fruitcake and that it is simply sent from family to family each year. What is true, is that most Americans turn their noses at the very thought of fruitcake even though, for some reason, this item keeps making the rounds and this is made possible because the cakes are soaked in alcohol or other liquors to keep them from go bad.
Don’t believe me? This man sampled a cake that someone had kept as a family heirloom dating back to 1878. In 2017, the Antarctic Heritage Trust found an 106-year-old fruitcake they deemed “almost edible”.
Even if may seems strange, the earliest recipe come from ancient Rome, and lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added. As a results, fruitcakes soon proliferated all over Europe with, of course, recipes that varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients.
Starting in the 16th century, sugar from the American Colonies (and, above all, the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits) created an excess of candied fruit, thus making fruitcakes more affordable and popular.
In the UK, fruitcakes come in many varieties, and the traditional Christmas cake is a round fruitcake covered in marzipan and then in white royal icing or fondant icing, often further decorated with snow scenes, holly leaves, and berries, or tiny decorative robins or snowmen.
As we already know, in Yorkshire, it is often served accompanied with cheese!
In Canada fruitcake is commonly eaten during the Christmas season and rarely is it seen during other times of the year. The Canadian fruitcake is similar in style to the UK version even though there is rarely icing on the cake and alcohol is not commonly put in Christmas cakes that are sold. The cakes also tend to be devoid of any decorations and are shaped like a small loaf of bread.
The cakes tend to be made in mid-November to early December when the weather starts to cool down and they are a staple during Christmas dinner, but also a gift generally exchanged between business associates and close friends and family.
A different story in United States. Typical American fruitcakes are rich in fruit and nuts. Traditional recipes are saturated with liqueurs or brandy and covered in powdered sugar, both of which prevent mold. Brandy (or wine) soaked linens can be used to store the fruitcakes, and some people feel that fruitcakes improve with age.
Fruitcake has become a ridiculed dessert, in part due to the mass-produced inexpensive cakes of questionable age. Some attribute the beginning of this trend with American late-night talk show, The Tonight Show, host comedian Johnny Carson. He would joke that there really is only one fruitcake in the world, passed from family to family.
Since 1995, Manitou Springs, Colorado, has hosted the Great Fruitcake Toss on the first Saturday of every January. “We encourage the use of recycled fruitcakes,” says Leslie Lewis of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce.
When I was a kid, my parents always had two or three of them hidden in the pantry around Christmas. They regularly received them as gifts and would step around them until they were forgotten, had “expired” (as much as a fruitcake can expire), and could be safely thrown away without offending the other party.
So why do we eat it? Or at the very least, we gift it?
There is a reason..it seems. At some point in history, fruitcake was a display for prosperity. Dried fruits and nuts were expensive items and so this cake was served at special events like Christmas to, for lack of a better way to say it, show off. Even though fruitcakes are no longer a way to display wealth, giving them is a tradition that has stuck (for some) still today.
Images from web.