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fruitcake giftEt Tu, Fruitcake!
by Marjorie Dorfman

Did someone send you one of those hard as a rock cakes again this year? Do you believe there was some crazy equipment leasing involved in making this cake? Are you convinced that whoever did send it couldn't possibly like you and yours very much? Well, if so, please read on for an interesting look at the history of fruitcakes and what they want from all of us.

A fruitcake is a geological homemade cake.    Charles Dickens
I never met a fruitcake I liked.   
The Dorfman Archives

Is there any food product anywhere that is more ridiculed and parodied during the holiday season than the poor old fruitcake? I once heard it said that there is really only one floating around the entire world. It is hard and stale because over the years it has been passed from person to person every holiday season since time immemorial. No one can eat it or use it for anything other than a gift for someone not liked, an alternate doorstop, brick or paperweight. HOW did this happen? Is it because the word fruitcake has become a synonym for a person whose elevator doesn’t ride to the top floor? Or is it just because it’s rather unappetizing? Who knows the truth? The fruitcake bogeyman, that’s who! Fruitcake could certainly use some printed cheap brochures to change its image.

Fruitcake usually contains candied fruit, citron (made from the thick peel of the citrus fruit of the same name), dried fruit, fruit rind, nuts, spices and some sort of liquor or brandy. The ratio of fruit and nuts to batter is fairly high, with just enough cake batter to hold it all together. This results in a very dense, heavy cake. Fruitcakes have traditionally been classified as either light or dark, although it is not necessarily the color that counts. (It’s almost like those green sandwiches in The Odd Couple, which Walter Mathau refers to as "either very new cheese or very old meat.") The lighter ones are less rich than their darker cousins and have subtler flavors and aroma. They are made with granulated sugar, light corn syrup, almonds, golden raisins, pineapple and apricots. The darker cakes are considered by some bakers to be the top of the line. They are much bolder in flavor and appearance. These get their color from molasses, brown sugar, raisins, prunes, dates, cherries, pecans and walnuts.

For most people, fruitcake conjures up an image of a comestible that is hard as a rock, easier to cut with a welding torch than a knife and is almost always associated with the holiday season. There seems no sympathy for its fate; not even Spam goes through what the venerable fruitcake does. Its durability seems due at least in part to its legendary ability to remain edible for weeks or months (or even years or centuries, if my opening theory is correct).

Food scholars date fruitcake back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. According to some historians, Egyptian fruitcake was considered an essential food for the afterlife and there are those today who maintain that this is the only thing they are good for. In ancient Rome, raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds were added to barley mash, making the fruitcake not only handy and lethal catapult ammunition, but also hearty compact foodstuff for the long campaigns waged by the conquering Roman legions. Centuries later, during the Middle Ages, preserved fruits, honey and spices were added, bumping the status of fruitcake up from granola bar to decadent dessert.

"Pickled" or "aged" fruitcakes, as their devotees (and there aren’t many) like to call them, have the legendary ability to last a long time. Crusaders were said to have packed cakes into their saddlebags and backpacks, presumably because there were few bakeries along the rocky road (the road, not the ice cream) to the Holy Grail. Panforte, a thin chewy fruitcake originating in Italy more than a thousand years ago and taken on The Crusades, is still made today. The history of fruitcake is also closely related to the European nut harvests of the 1700s. After the harvest, accumulated nuts were mixed and made into a fruitcake that was saved until the following year. At that time, the fruitcake was consumed in the hope that its symbolism would bring the blessing of another successful harvest.

No one knows for sure why and how the fruitcake became associated with the holidays, but it most likely came from the English who passed out slices of cake to poor women who sang Christmas carols in the street during the late 1700s. It is known that in England by the end of the 18th century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake (plum being the generic word for dried fruit at the time) to Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings and funerals. The Victorians enjoyed their fruitcakes. Even today it remains a custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of dark fruitcake under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry. It is said that Queen Victoria once waited a year to devour a birthday fruitcake because she felt it showed restraint. (Or was it merely a case of royal dislike? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.)

The role of the fruitcake in American history is dubious and cloudy. One theory presented by an historian who couldn’t quite locate his credentials dates back to the days of the American Revolutionary War. Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, asked Benjamin Franklin to come up with an easy to use barricade material to guard against incoming British cannon fire. Benjamin Franklin thought about it, went to bed early and rose early, healthy, wealthy and wise enough to tell the waiting general about his mother-in-law’s fruitloaf. Her attempt at some kind of bread had been so hard that his uncle had broken a tooth while biting into it at the previous year’s holiday dinner! It is not known if the general followed Franklin’s advice. It’s more likely that he never asked him again.

Immigrants from Germany, England, The Caribbean and other parts of the world brought their own style of fruitcakes to the United States and that’s why no one can agree on the definition of a fruitcake. The ones displayed in groceries are almost all Americanized versions of the classic. Mandatory ingredients include red and green candied cherries, pineapple, citron and raisins, with some pecans or other nuts thrown in or on top of the cake. The more expensive fruitcakes contain brandy, bourbon or rum; the less expensive can be doctored at home, should one be sinfully inclined.

All in all, anything goes. It’s that time of year when most of us throw our caution and checkbooks and credit cards to the wind. Why not try a fruitcake? Time’s a ‘wasting and if not now, when? If you are feeling creative and fancy free, why not make one? A wonderful recipe follows this article that is yours for the very taking. Have fun whatever you do. Life is hard enough without a few laughs. Be daring. Close your eyes when you bite into your next fruitcake. Just remember to keep a blowtorch and the number of the fire department somewhere nearby.

Happy Holidays! And inflict on others the recipe on page 2 as you would have them inflict on you! Or . . . how does that go, again?

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Don't miss this excellent book:

Nutty As A Fruitcake: A Bed and Breakfast Mystery

Nutty as a Fruitcake

A horde of in-laws at a wedding brings murder and mayhem outside the hotel reception site. Enjoyable and very funny.

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