Loved or hated, but very rarely anything in between, fruitcake has long been the holiday season’s favorite neon-dotted loaf, joke, and re-gift. But in addition to being the baked good that never dies (literally—there are a couple century-old fruitcakes in existence), it has also traveled to space, become some towns’ claims to fame (“Fruitcake Capital of the World,” Home of the “Great Fruitcake Toss”), and, somewhat recently, suddenly gave an 89-year-old woman a brand new career.
1. FRUITCAKE DATES BACK TO AT LEAST ROMAN TIMES.
The Romans mixed pine nuts, barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins and honeyed wine and shaped it into a cake they called “satura.” Fittingly, the word satire—a literary device the Romans invented—is derived from the cake: a mix of many ingredients both sour and sweet, according to the New York Times.
2. THE PRICE OF SUGAR MIGHT HAVE AFFECTED ITS UBIQUITY.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that fruitcake really started to become a thing. In his 2002 article “A Short History of Fruitcake” for the Village Voice, Robert Sietsema blamed “the fruitcake plague” on inexpensive sugar that came to Europe from the colonies in the 1500s. “Some goon discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in successively greater concentrations of sugar, intensifying color and flavor,” Sietsema wrote. “…Having so much sugar-laced fruit engendered the need to dispose of it in some way—thus the fruitcake. By the early 19th century, the typical recipe was heavy as lead with citrus peel, pineapples, plums, dates, pears, and cherries.”
3. IT’S A BAKED GOOD WITH SOME SERIOUS HEFT.
Sietsema might have been exaggerating just a bit when he compared fruitcake to lead. However, according to Harper’s Index, the ratio of the density of the average fruitcake to the density of mahogany is 1:1.
Another fun Harper’s Index fruitcake fact: “Age, in years, of a piece of wedding fruitcake on display at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace, in Caldwell, New Jersey: 106.”
4. FRUITCAKE HAS LONG BEEN A SPECIAL-OCCASION FOOD FOR BRITISH ROYALTY.
Speaking of wedding fruitcake, in Victorian England it became all the rage. Fruitcake also became a mainstay at Christmas and other special occasions. For her own wedding to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria served a single-layer plum cake. She also supposedly waited an entire year to eat a slice of her birthday fruitcake in an effort to show (or, more like show off) restraint.
When Princess Diana married Charles, she also served a fruitcake, according to Alexia Nader in her Saveur article “Fruitcakes Piled High: A Brief History of Royal Wedding Cakes,” published the day before Kate Middleton and Prince William’s wedding. “Middleton and Prince William have been heralded as the royal couple that will bring the British monarchy into the 21st century,” Nader wrote, “so the burden falls on them to bring the wedding cake tradition into contemporary times as well.” Apparently, Middleton’s reputed choice of fruitcake was “a clear nod to Diana’s wedding.”
A slice of that very fruitcake sold at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills earlier this month for a whopping $7500. Several years prior, the same auction house sold a slice of the Charles-and-Di wedding cake for approximately $6000. The fruit-studded slice was 27 years old at the time of purchase.
5. FRUITCAKE HAS SURPRISING LONGEVITY.
Fruitcake can age 25 years and still be eaten (and enjoyed), as long as it contains the proper preservatives and is stored in an airtight container, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
However, in a 1983 New York Times column titled “Fruitcake Is Forever,” Russell Baker claimed to be in possession of a fruitcake that a long-dead relative had baked in 1794 as a Christmas gift for President George Washington. Washington allegedly sent it back with a note explaining that it was “unseemly for Presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though they were only eight inches in diameter.” Still, the most bizarre element of the story was yet to come: Baker and his relatives were still gathering each year to saw off a tiny morsel of the fruitcake that they would then divide and consume.
6. TRUMAN CAPOTE TURNED A FRUITCAKE-BAKING EXPEDITION INTO FINE SHORT FICTION.
In December 1956, Capote published a short story in Mademoiselle magazine titled “A Christmas Memory” about two cousins—the narrator, a 7-year-old referred to as “Buddy,” and the other a charmingly eccentric woman in her sixties. The story begins with the woman looking out the window and announcing one early-winter morning, “Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!” “A Christmas Memory” has become a cherished holiday tale, and is often included in Christmas-story anthologies.
After determining that it’s fruitcake weather, the two cousins then gather the necessary ingredients: “cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavourings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” Buddy then explains that they bake the fruitcakes for “friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all.” The intended fruitcake recipients include some Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured in the cousins’ Alabama town the winter past, the driver of the 6 o’clock bus from Mobile, a California couple whose car broke down outside the cousins’ house one afternoon, and President Roosevelt.
7. FRUITCAKE HAS TRAVELED TO SPACE.
A pineapple fruitcake was brought along on the Apollo 11 space mission. But it wasn’t sitting cozily in Neil Armstong or Buzz Aldrin’s bellies when they became the first humans to walk on the moon. The fruitcake is currently on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., because, according to the museum’s website, “As it was not consumed during the mission it was returned to earth…”
8. SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE, FRUITCAKE BECAME A HOLIDAY JOKE.
Though, like the astronauts, many fruitcake recipients have chosen to re-gift the confection throughout the ages, Johnny Carson is widely credited with giving the baked good a bad rap in December 1985 when he quipped on The Tonight Show, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
9. THERE IS (ALLEGEDLY) SUCH A THING AS TASTY FRUITCAKE.
In 1989, just a few short years after Johnny Carson’s infamous dis, Dena Klein wrote a lengthy article for the New York Times titled “Just in Time, a Defense of Fruitcake.” In it, she quotes Seth Greenberg, who worked in his family bakery, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts in Manhattan, as saying that the problem with fruitcake is not the cake itself but instead the too-dry, sickeningly sweet neon fruit that too many bakers cram into them. Seth insisted that fruitcake made with only the best, properly treated ingredients—brandy, glace cherries, apricots, figs and dates—is heavenly.
In her 2006 Isthmus article “Stop making fun of fruitcake!” Erika Janik echoes Seth Greenberg: “Despite what you see in grocery stores, candied fruits in unnatural colors are not obligatory and should, in my opinion, be avoided. Naturally sweet, dried fruits are the key.”
And in Texas Monthly’s 2007 article “Bob McNutt’s Sticky Truths About Fruitcake,”
Bob McNutt, third-generation president of the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, which had been selling its DeLuxe Fruitcakes since 1896, compares the difference between bad fruitcake and delicious fruitcake to the difference between chuck and prime rib. “…There’s not a standard of identity for fruitcake,” he said. “I mean, you can take anything—a pound cake with a couple pieces of fruit thrown in – and call it a fruitcake. It’s like steak: You can get a prime cut that just melts in your mouth or you can end up with shoe leather. There’s such a range.”
10. BUT THAT HASN’T STOPPED ONE TOWN’S “GREAT FRUITCAKE TOSS.”
Though December gives a nod—if not a bow—to the fruitcake by distinguishing itself as “National Fruitcake Month,” it’s quickly followed by Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3rd. The town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, has become known for taking this day particularly seriously since it commenced its annual “Great Fruitcake Toss” in 1996.
Leslie Lewis, executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, told us that it all began when former chamber director Michele Carvell noticed that no one wanted to eat the fruitcakes they had been given over the holidays. “But people would also bring a nonperishable food item to donate because we wanted to offset the wasting of food,” Lewis said.
The event hasn’t taken place the past two years, according to Lewis, but there’s a local group that’s recently expressed an interest in starting it back up again. As clearly evidenced in the 2008 YouTube video above, it’s something the folks of Manitou Springs have turned out for in droves—and with great gusto—in years past. “People have built catapults, pneumatic cannons, all sorts of things,” Lewis said. “Or you can always just throw it.”
11. MEANWHILE, TWO OTHER LOCALES HAVE BEEN VYING FOR “FRUITCAKE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.”
In 2012, NPR ran a story about how the small town of Claxton, Georgia—home of two bakeries (Claxton Bakery and the Georgia Fruitcake Company) that each year yield more than 4 million pounds of fruitcake—calls itself the Fruitcake Capital of the World, despite the same claim made by Corsicana, Texas (home to the aforementioned Collin Street Bakery and Bob McNutt). The disputed claim hasn’t stopped Claxton from declaring itself the “Fruitcake Capital of the World” on its water tower.
12. JAY LENO EVENTUALLY REVIVED CARSON’S JOKE, TO THE OUTRAGE OF “THE FRUITCAKE LADY.”
In the forward to her 2006 book Ask the Fruitcake Lady: Everything You Would Already Know If You Had Any Sense, then-95-year-old Marie Rudisill explained how she came to be hired as an official advice-giver on The Tonight Show in 2000:
I noticed Jay Leno kept talking trash about fruitcake in his opening monologue. He said it was the worst food on the planet, suitable only for building retaining walls. That burned me up, because I knew that he had never tasted good fruitcake. So I wrote him a letter telling him that he was uninformed, ignorant, and basically unwelcome, and that if he wanted to taste real fruitcake he should try some of mine. Of course, he fell in love with me after that. A lot of men are suckers for a strong woman who will put them in their place.
13. THERE’S A LITTLE-KNOWN CONNECTION BETWEEN “THE FRUITCAKE LADY” AND CAPOTE.
Rudisill had reason for her particularly passionate feelings about fruitcake. Not long before her standoff with Leno, she had published a part cookbook-part memoir called Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook. Known to Capote as “Aunt Tiny” while he was growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, Rudisill might not have spared little Truman any of the frank, sharp-as-a-tack advice she would become famous for dispensing on The Tonight Show. She also revealed that “A Christmas Memory” wasn’t completely fictional—Capote had shared a close bond with his cousin Sook Faulk, an avid baker of Christmas fruitcake (Rudisill published Sook’s Cookbook in 1989), that was very similar to the friendship between Buddy and the woman who so famously proclaimed “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”
14. WHEN BAKING FRUITCAKE, THE HOLY SPIRIT MIGHT BE THE KEY TO CREATING A WINNER.
As part of his history of fruitcake for the Village Voice, Robert Sietsema taste-tested several different fruitcakes “using the savor-and-spit technique favored by wine critics.” The best two, he found, were created by monks. He determined the fruitcake sold by the Trappist monks of Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani to be “crumbly and voluptuous.” The competing cake, made by the monks at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, was topped with a honey glaze.
A 2012 Washington Times profile on the Holy Cross Abbey monks states that they sell approximately 10,000 fruitcakes per year. The monks have spent many decades honing a recipe that was originally based on Betty Crocker directives. In addition to cake batter, the monks mix in raisins, pineapple, nuts, cherries, and pieces of lemon and orange, as well as nutmeg, vanilla, cumin and other spices.
15. OR IT JUST MIGHT BE THE BOOZE.
In addition to the monks’ cakes being the most delectable, they were also the most booze-soaked, according to Sietsema. “It’s hard to believe that men of God are busily undermining the sobriety of the populace (including children) by pouring the hard stuff over Christmas cakes,” he wrote. Nonetheless, the Abbey of Gethsemani cakes contained both burgundy wine and Kentucky bourbon. And to the Holy Cross fruitcakes the monks “add a generous measure of fine sherry wine.”
But Truman Capote knew booze was a secret to successful fruitcake baking way back in 1956. After Buddy and his cousin are finished baking the cakes, they discover two inches of whiskey left in the bottle: “The taste of it brings screwed-up expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously.”
All images courtesy of iStock.