What do Christmas fruit cake and coriander have in common? Well, it seems as though people either love them or hate them. It seems more and more difficult to track down genuine fruit cake advocates with every passing holiday season. Yet, with over 2 million fruitcakes sold every holiday season, it begs the question, what’s happening to them all?
According to Johnny Carson, there is only one singular fruitcake in circulation. It gets re-gifted from household to household until some families see the same fruitcake a second or third time. While this may be far-fetched, it certainly is a relatable sentiment. Fruitcakes are no longer a very desirable gift to receive. So why do we continue to give them to our friends and loved ones when they should be a treat reserved for enemies and astronauts?
If we head back in time to trace the history of the fruitcake, maybe we can get some answers as to why this seemingly outdated (and generally despised) baked good still plays a prominent role in Christmas traditions around the western world.
Like so many other traditions, fruitcakes date back to the early first and second centuries when the Romans devised ways of sustaining their soldiers on the front lines. To provide their troops with the necessary calories to fight and win battles, the Romans invented Satura, a bread consisting of pomegranate seeds, raisins, honeyed wind, barley mash, and pine nuts. It was the Roman soldier’s energy bar that slowly began to make its way into households and onto dessert trays.
As dried fruit became more available, these primitive fruit energy bars evolved in various cultures, leading to more modern dessert versions such as the Italian pinafore, the English plum pudding, and the German Dresden stollen.
The Sugar Boom of the 16th Century
As modern sugarcane processing took over the Caribbean, colonies began exporting sugar at cheaper and cheaper prices, creating a sugar boom between the 16th and 18th centuries. Before this, dating back to the medieval period, sugar was considered a “fine spice” and was incredibly expensive due to its scarcity.
As new technology in the 16th century allowed for more successful harvesting and processing, the demand for sugar intensified, as did the sweet tooths of Europeans for more precious delicacies. During this time, jellies, jams, and candies became more prevalent among those who could afford it, and fruit was preserved by soaking it in inexpensive sugar from the colonies. Due to the lack of refrigeration at the time, preserving fruit by this method allowed people to enjoy fruit out of season and in the harsh winter months when a taste of summer was needed the most. With a sudden excess of dried fruits, there needed to be a way to store and consume them.
Fruitcake quickly became an efficient way of getting rid of the excess preserved fruit by mixing it with more sugar and flour and baking it into a cake. The boozy addition of many fruitcake recipes is thought to have come from the Caribbean “black cake,” where the fruit was soaked for months in the local rum before being added to the batter. The addition of alcohol to the recipe further increased the shelf life of these desserts.
A “Sinfully Rich” Dessert
By the end of the 19th century, the fruitcake or “plum cake” had become a decadent dessert for the Victorian England elite. Due to various factors, including the laborious production time, its high cost, and the intense richness, fruitcake was primarily reserved for special occasions, namely weddings and holidays.
By that time, the “Twelfth Night Cake” tradition was also in full English swing, a fruitcake dessert containing a coin or a dried bean that celebrated the end of Christmastide. Whoever received the slice containing the coin or bean was deemed the King or Queen of the celebration.
While there is no exact proof that the American tradition of fruitcake at Christmas comes directly from the Victorian plum cake or the English Twelfth Night cake, it seems a logical theory that these customs could have been carried to the new world alongside many other English traditions.
When Did Fruitcake Become Uncool
According to Smithsonian Magazine, fruitcakes began to fall out of favor in the early 20th century when mail order fruitcakes became widespread and accessible. Gone were the days of washing, pitting, and drying the fruit or pounding and sieving the sugar. Gone were the family traditions and the nostalgic memories of Grandmother’s special recipe. As of 2019, three commercialized companies produce seven million pounds of dessert cake every year, destroying any facade of labor-intensive tradition and end-of-winter celebratory sweetness.
Yet the tradition continues, and a fruitcake is hardly amiss at most Christmas gatherings. The good news for those that enjoy the dessert? There is rarely competition for the last piece.
A Regifting Tradition
The Christmas fruitcake has fast become the butt of many holiday jokes. General resentment for the dessert has gone as far as inspiring annual destruction events such as The Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where fruitcakes are catapulted out of sight using ever-advancing fruitcake catapulting devices.
The general consensus might sarcastically quip that destroying a fruitcake is more merciful than re-gifting it. Yet, the modern tradition of re-gifting these less-than-desirable desserts grows stronger. Fruitcakes are perfect for regifting for the same reasons they became popular in the first place- they last a long time. According to Miss Manners of the Chicago Tribune, “The proper response is to thank the people who gave it to you. And to remove the card before passing it on. After proper aging, it will eventually reach the two or three people in this world who love fruitcake.”
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