Culinary Curiosities: Who Put the Fruit in the Cake?

It’s one of the most reviled desserts of all time. The butt of many jokes and source of chagrin for those who receive it as a holiday gift. But before you chuck that brick-like, red-and-green studded loaf into the compost bin (or re-gift it to your boss), you might be interested to know that fruitcakes of the past were a delicacy, fit for kings and queens, a must-have at celebrations of all kinds. It’s true that the modern incarnation has fallen on hard times, often produced on the cheap with subpar ingredients, but once upon a time it was a genuine treat.

Some of the earliest recipes for fruited cakes are from ancient Rome. Barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins, honeyed wine and spices were baked into a loaf that was portable and provided needed calories to Roman soldiers. But the sweeter, dessert-style cake as we know it today has its roots in the Middle Ages, when dried fruits from the Mediterranean made their way to Europe and England. In the 16th century sugar from the colonies made fruitcakes sweeter and, of course, even more popular. By the early 18th century the church in Europe banned the treat except for special occasions such as weddings and christenings because it was "sinfully rich."

That ecclesiastical disapproval notwithstanding, by the end of the 18th century bans were repealed and fruitcake fans could indulge. Victorians, especially, loved it. Tea time wasn’t complete without a slice or two, but it also retained its status as a celebratory dessert. Fruitcake was often proudly served at weddings, particularly royal ones. Queen Victoria had fruitcake to celebrate her nuptials, as did Prince Charles and Lady Diana. More recently, Prince William and Kate Middleton continued the tradition by serving an eight-tier tamarind fruitcake at their wedding. In 2014, a year after the wedding, a slice of the coveted cake sold at auction for $7,500.

The staying power of the fruitcake is legendary. It’s baked and designed to keep for a long time. A high-sugar, low-moisture environment inhibits bacteria, as does the common practice of adding alcohol. Some recipes call for adding spirits to the batter while others suggest "feeding" the cake through holes poked in the finished product. Other fruitcakes are wrapped in alcohol-soaked cloth. There are benefits to aging: dried fruits have tannins—just like the grapes used to make wine—that develop flavor over time. It’s best to prepare a fruitcake well in advance of serving it. Some bakers make their cakes the holiday before they want to eat it.

Experts suggest a properly prepared fruitcake could last up to 25 years, if stored in an airtight container. But for some families, the cakes have become a kind of heirloom. The Ford family of Tecumseh, Michigan, treasures a fruitcake baked by ancestor Fidelia Bates baked in 1878. She passed away before she could serve it and they’ve kept it ever since. In 2003 Jay Leno tried a tiny piece of the then 125-year-old cake and declared "it needed more time." A fruitcake discovered just this year in Antarctica once belong to British explorer Robert Scott. Still in its original tin, the 106-year-old cake was pronounced "almost edible."

With such long-lasting cakes, it’s no wonder former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson once quipped that there was only one fruitcake in the world that was continually passed from family to family. For those who aren’t content to merely pass along an unwanted cake, they can throw, catapult and slingshot them at the Annual Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Prizes awarded for accuracy, distance and crowd-pleasing presentation. But for lovers of the dessert, there’s a contest for cakes "too good to toss" and the winner is crowned Fruitcake Queen (or King).

I feel that the long-derided fruitcake deserves renewed attention. If you’ve never had a good fruitcake, considered ordering one from a reputable local bakery or, even better, try making one of your own. Just think, you can make several now and gift them for the next 10 years. 

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