Fruit cake…that dense, dry cake full of everything but flavor, a punchline made infamous by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in the 1960’s when he said:
“The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake… There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”
From then on, fruit cake was the Tonight Show’s Christmas punching bag. But before you judge it too quickly, let’s take a closer look at this much-maligned confection.
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Fruit Cake – Often Mocked
Fruit cake is often mocked and ridiculed. If you are unlucky enough to get a fruit cake for Christmas, you have options….you could eat it (really, you could), you could re-gift it (that may work), but if you are near Manitou Springs, Colorado on The Great Fruitcake Toss (January 26, 2019) you could toss it…not on the ground but you actually could competitively propel the dense loaf of questionable ingredients to see how far or how accurate you can be…prizes are given for distance and accuracy in the hand toss event and the robotic-mechanical three-man event using creatively concocted giant slingshots. Since 1995, the fine folks there celebrate fruit cake and mock it at the same time….if you have a great recipe, enter their contest, you may be selected Fruit Cake King or Queen or if you choose Door # 3, enter the tossing contest. Hate fruit cakes but don’t have your own to toss? The ingenious folks in Manitou Springs will rent you one! All in the name of charity.
Want more mockery? The term “nutty as a fruitcake”, coined in the 1920s is to describe someone who acts a little off. You get it..fruit cakes are full of nuts, so nutty as a fruitcake serves to define the degree of nuttiness. Still more? Donate your fruitcake to science and watch the scientists at Richmond’s Science Museum of Virginia conduct inhumane scientific experiments on them-can they float or conduct electricity, what happens when you quick-freeze them in dry ice, can they be ignited with a torch? Find out all of this and more at the annual post-Christmas fruitcake celebration. All in the name of Science.
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How Has Fruit Cake Stayed Around So Long
If fruit cake is the most hated and reviled food item in the history of food items, how do you explain its world-wide popularity and longevity? Here are a few things you may or may not know about the much vilified fruit cake.
Fruit cake didn’t just show up in the 1960s. The ancient Egyptians used to place fruit cakes in the tombs and pyramids of the deceased to provide nourishment for the travel to the afterlife. The high caloric content and the mobility of these Middle-Ages power bars served the Roman legions and even the Crusaders. Things really got going in Great Britain and Europe when dried fruits and nuts began to be imported from Portugal and the Mediterranean, soon followed by cheap sugar from the Caribbean sugar plantations. Sugar was used to make candied fruit, an important ingredient in fruit cake, not only for its sweet flavor but for its use in preserving the fruit “long after the period fixed by Nature for their duration,” wrote 18th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. By the 16th Century, Europe and particularly Great Britain were enamored with fruit cake. With the ability to acquire previously scarce and expensive ingredients like sugar, spices, dried fruit and alcohol, the fruit cake became a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
The symbolic as well as the practical have long been recognized by the British
Royal Family (full disclosure, The Queen and I are Facebook friends) as they traditionally feature fruit cakes at christenings, weddings and other formal events. Queen Victoria served an ornately decorated plum cake (plum = dried fruit) which weighed 300 pounds at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 there were 27 cakes, but the official wedding cake was a fruit cake standing five feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds. Charles must love fruit cake as his second wedding to Camilla also featured a fruit cake, this time topping out at over 240 pounds. Prince William and Kate Middleton continued the Royal tradition by serving an elaborately decorated eight-tier fruit cake which stood three feet tall and weighed 220 pounds at their nuptials. The fascination with all things Royal was evident 27 years after Charles and Diana were married, when a slice of their wedding fruit cake was sold at auction for $6000 at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills. Later, a slice of Kate and William’s Royal wedding fruit cake fetched $7500 at the same auction house.
Fruit Cake Capitals of the World
Back in America, you’d think with all the vitriol aimed at the humble fruit cake no one would want to publicize their love for the confection. Don’t tell that to the residence of The Fruitcake Capital of the World, Claxton, Georgia. This little town, just south of Statesboro, Georgia (does that give you the Blues?) boasts two bakeries which combine to sell about four-million pounds of fruit cake every year. Think about that for a minute, the population of Claxton is only about 2300 people. Some may say that is some gross domestic product! The Claxton fruit cake frolic started in 1910 when an Italian immigrant named Salvino Tos relocated from New York City and opened the Claxton Bakery and started selling cakes, breads, homemade ice cream and fruit cake. He hired two young boys to work around the shop, Albert Parker and Ira Womble. These two men carried on the tradition when Salvino retired in 1945, with Albert taking over the Claxton Bakery (and deciding to concentrate on fruit cake because of the competition for ice cream and bread was too much) and Ira opening the Georgia Fruit Cake Company in 1948. Now, over 110 years after Salvino started making fruit cake in Claxton, the legacy continues with Albert and Ira’s descendants carrying on the families’ tradition from these same bakeries…and family and tradition are the most important ingredient.
Claxton’s claim to the Fruitcake Capital of the World title is disputed by the citizens of Corsicana, Texas. In 1896, a German baker named August Weidman introduced the Original Deluxe Fruit Cake to Corsicana at his Collin Street Bakery. The Original Deluxe Fruit Cake was made from an old-world recipe that August had brought with him 6,000 miles from Wiesbaden, Germany. August’s fruit cake may never have become famous (in fruit cake circles, anyway) had it not been for two fortuitous events. The first is that August took Tom McElwee as a partner. While August was the master baker, Tom brought two different but very important elements to Collin Street Bakery-ample financial capital and mad marketing skills. Tom set out to publicize the Deluxe Fruit Cake all over the word at a time when the second fortuitous event was developing. Corsicana was the site of the first two oil strikes west of the Mississippi River and quickly became an oil and rail center. The Collin Street Bakery outgrew their original location so August and Tom built a structure large enough to house a huge bakery and a luxury hotel on the second floor which came in handy as Corsicana’s reputation grew. The Corsicana Opera House attracted world class entertainers and Tom quickly befriended the rich and the famous including some notables of the day…like Will Rogers and John Ringling who brought his circus to town. Ringling and his troupe were so enamored with the Original Deluxe Fruit Cake that they ordered fruit cakes to be shipped to their friends all over the world, thus encouraging the mass distribution of fruit cake. It’s little wonder that both Corsicana and Claxton claim to be The Fruitcake Capital of the World. I think you should put a trip to both on your bucket-list so you can decide for yourself!
Fruit cake was even sent into space on the Apollo 11 mission. It wasn’t consumed in space, however, and today it is on display on the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Did someone say bucket-list?
Just What is a Fruit Cake?
If we had a better understanding of specifically what a fruit cake is, we may be able to overcome the negativity. However, there is no strict definition of what a fruit cake is. Basically, it should be made of these three components: a bread or cake base, dried or candied fruit with or without nuts and alcohol-don’t overlook the importance of the booze. It should contain various spices and flavorings and can come in the form of loaves, logs, bundt shaped or just about any other variation you can imagine. Part of the negative image may be attributed to the mass-distributed fruit cakes whose reputation is that they just aren’t as tasty as they should be. Many don’t contain alcohol, so what do you expect? Another factor which may cause suspicion is the oft-documented longevity of fruit cake which seems to last well beyond the acceptable lifespan of the edible. In an attempt to clarify just what and why that is, this is posted on the CBC/Radio Canada Website:
“It’s not just a cake with some fruit inside. The fruit and nuts for fruitcake have to be dried or soaked in sugar… Because of the sugar, fruitcake doesn’t go bad for a long time. Some recipes call for alcohol in the cake, or for it to be stored in a cloth with alcohol on it. Alcohol gets rid of bacteria, which is what causes food to go bad, so fruitcakes can last a really long time…There are even fruitcakes that are still okay to eat after being kept for 25 years. And one family has held onto a fruitcake for over 130 years! It’s a family heirloom so no one is looking to eat it— also it’s hardened into something like a rock!”
Standing Up for Fruit Cake
That’s not to say that the fruit cake is without defenders and champions. Virginia Glass, an author, self-schooled pastry purveyor and amateur fruitcake historian had this to say about what a fruit cake should be:
A fruitcake should be rich, it should taste like dried fruit and spices and alcohol. It should have a moist texture — it’s not supposed to be dry and crusty.
Susan G. Purdy, author of ”A Piece of Cake” and a defender of fruit cakes, explains that “Fruitcake can be as wonderful as the ingredients.”
Still another champion of the fruit cake ironically became popular also due to the
Tonight Show, this time starring Jay Leno. Marie Rudisill, popularly known as The Fruitcake Lady explained in the forward to her 2006 book “Ask the Fruitcake Lady: Everything You Would Already Know If You Had Any Sense” 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.”
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Time for Penance
Now that you know a little more, are you feeling a little guilty about the way you’ve been treating fruit cake? Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not your fault and you’ve got lots of company. But take heed, there are opportunities to pay penance for your sins. First, make sure to celebrate National Fruitcake Day each year on December 27th. Have some and share some, take to social media and proclaim your reverence for this important confection and use the hashtag #NationalFruitcakeDay. Still feeling guilty? Join the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake, a non-membership organization that spreads the gospel according to fruitcakes (If there ever was a double entendre, that’s it!). In answering a FAQ, the Society states this as their purpose:
The Society’s goal is to protect and preserve fruitcake, not in the pouring on more brandy or rum type of preservation but in the ‘spread the gospel’ way. By providing information and links about fruitcake, it’s hoped we can provide safe haven for fruitcake lovers and some encouragement for others to give it a try.
Fruit Cake-Tradition in a Loaf
Fruit cake, worldly and endlessly connected to tradition, culture and Christmas. For centuries, cultures around the world have developed and adore their own, distinct versions. The Italian Panaforte dates back to the 13th Century and Panettone has been around since the 15th Century. Germany’s Stollen is very traditional; the Polish have their Keks, Bahn bo mut originates from Vietnam and the Caribbean Islands have Black Cake, notorious for soaking the fruit in booze for an insanely long time. My dear Louisiana is prime territory for fruit cakes with its abundance of native pecans, sugar and European immigrants. The exact path that fruit cake has taken to the Bayou State is not clear, but delicious, moist fruit cake is very common during the Christmas season in Louisiana. Under the it’s a small world category, Portugal has its Bolo Rei, which hides a fava bean within…the lucky person receiving the piece with the beans must furnish the next cake. Bolo-Rei has many similarities to the New Orleans King Cakes during Mardi Gras season!
The South, in general it would seem, is fertile territory for fruit cake propagation-it’s just the type of family oriented tradition that holds fast in Southern families. There is nothing that brings that point home more than Truman Capote’s short story, A Christmas Memory, which in itself is good enough reason for you to eat and love fruit cake. Capote (interesting fact-The Fruitcake Lady, Marie Rudisill, was his aunt), a true son of the South, tells his poignant tale through the eyes of seven year old Buddy, as he assists his elderly cousin gather all the ingredients to make fruit cakes, despite their total lack of resources. These Christmas time treats are to be given to select friends and acquaintances and some people she has never met. The power and depth of fruit cake is summed up in Capote’s words:
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window…”Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”
So I leave you with this…where fruit cakes are concerned, this is only the tip of the ice berg. Try Aunt Ellen’s Fruit Cake Recipe, it’s what fruit cake should taste like!
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