It was once the food of knights and queens. It had a place of honor on English wedding tables. But somewhere along the way, fruitcake became the butt of jokes.
Some blame Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who in 1985 quipped that there's only one fruitcake in the world, “and people keep passing it on.”
But food historian, artist and herbalist Arlene Wright-Correll thinks fruitcake deserves another look. “There's that standard old joke about the oldest family heirloom being the fruitcake,” she says. “People don't seem to like them, you know. But I don't know why.”
For one, that heirloom accusation is no joke. Carson's successor Jay Leno in 1993 sampled a 125-year-old family relic fruitcake on air — and lived to tell the tale.
Fruitcake's seemingly supernatural staying power comes from the tradition of preserving it with spirits like brandy. Irma S. Rombauer, who published the first Joy of Cooking cookbook in 1931, said that a fruitcake, properly prepared and stored, could remain edible a full quarter-century after its creation.
Still, no one ever builds a fruitcake cellar in their basement. Even so, the dessert used to demand more respect than the late-night wiseacres tend to give it.
“In England, that was the wedding cake,” Wright-Correll says. “Of course, we're talking about a couple of hundred years ago — or more.”
Before that, bakers in the Middle Age made the cakes with dried fruit, barley mash, honey and nuts to be carried like oversized granola bars by Crusaders.
But somewhere along the line, things went horribly, day-glow wrong. Flash-forward to a time when brightly colored gelatin salads began jiggling their way onto the holiday table. Artificial colors had their way with the fruitcake, turning the loaf into a disco of sugary color.
Fans of Southern-style fruitcake are likely to balk at the suggestion that's there's anything wrong with oddly colored cherries. And Wright-Correll isn't so sure that hypercolor fruit has much to do with fruit cake's falling out of favor, anyway.
“I don't what happened along the way,” she says. “But I think it's maybe because it takes a long time to make. Making fruitcake takes a lot of effort, and people today want instant gratification.”
Wright-Correll says her sister-in-law, Martha, a nutritionist who ran a school kitchen, made the best fruitcakes she's ever tasted. She made them the old way, which translates to taking her sweet time.
Martha would start baking the cakes directly in coffee cans in mid-summer. She'd pack the batter with candied citrus peels, currants, raisins and winter spices like allspice, clove, nutmeg and mace.
“And after she baked them, she took them out and wrapped them in cheesecloth,” she said. “Then she'd put them back in the can, soak the heck out them with spirits, put the cap back on, and stick them in the attic for another six months. By the time you got them, you couldn't not like them.”
But some people don't love the texture of fruitcake, which gets its density from a high fruit and nut to batter ratio.
“It's a very dense, heavy cake,” Wright-Correll says. “And it just stayed … and stayed. And when it's not done well, it really stays — then you can use it as a doorstop.”
This year, we're challenging the notion that fruitcake's best use is as a doorstop. We've lowered the concentration of fruit, nixed the spirits and added a whole lot of chocolate — because no one ever complains about chocolate cake being too dense and rich, do they?