This traditional holiday fare has been the butt of jokes for years. Johnny Carson used to say there was only one fruitcake in the entire world and it was just passed around. The fruitcake has been around for awhile though. The Romans mixed together barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts and raisins which resembled what we call an energy bar today. In fact, since it was easy to transport, Roman soldiers carried it to the battlefield to munch on.
The appearance of what came to be known as fruitcake can be traced back to the Middle Ages after dried fruits were available for export from the Mediterranean to western Europe and England. Italy had their own version, a dense, sweet and spicy bread called panaforte (which means “strong bread”). The Germans made stollen, more like bread than cake, which was coated with melted butter and powdered sugar. In England there were plum cakes.
In the 1700’s, a fruitcake might be baked at the end of the nut harvest and saved to celebrate the end of the following year’s harvest. It was thought that the symbolism of eating the previous year’s harvest would bring the blessing of yet another successful harvest.
The traditional English fruitcake was dense and packed with dried fruit and perhaps some type of liquor like rum. The fruit had to be washed, dried, pitted; sugar had to be granulated (no running out to the store for a five-pound bag of sugar); butter washed and rinsed in rose water; eggs beaten for perhaps as long as one-half hour; and last, but not least, prepare the yeast. It was an expensive, as well as time-consuming, project.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries making a fruitcake would have been considered an indulgence, given the expense and time involved. Early in the eighteenth century, fruitcake (or plum cake as it was also called) was outlawed throughout continental Europe – it was “sinfully rich”.
By the end of the century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake. It is a mystery, though, how fruitcake came to be associated with the Christmas season. It’s possible, as some speculate, that the English may have passed out pieces of fruitcake to poor women singing carols in the street.
The Victorian Age apparently brought a reversal of opinion on the sinful richness of fruitcake. Between 1837 and 1901 this “indulgence” was quite popular. A spot of tea during that time wouldn’t have been complete without something sweet. Still, moderation apparently was in order. It is said that Queen Victoria waited an entire year to partake of fruitcake she received for her birthday – what restraint!
Besides the jokes about fruitcake being passed around, etc., there are some “strange” traditions that have been attached to it over the years. During the Victorian Age it was customary for unmarried wedding guests to place a slice under their pillow so they could dream of the person they would marry. For almost twenty years the residents of Manitou Springs, Colorado have held an annual “Fruit Cake Toss”. Categories include launch, toss, hurl, and pneumatic devices – trophies (not fruitcakes) are awarded to winners in each category.
Early in the twentieth century, fruitcakes began to be mass-produced and in 1913 were available for mail order. The oldest fruitcake bakery in the United States is the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, founded in 1896. These are my favorite and not just because I live in Texas – they’re just hard to beat (IMHO) – look at those huge Texas pecans on top! But, of course, you’d need to be a fan of fruitcake to begin with. According to the president of the Collin Street Bakery, Princess Grace was a longtime customer.
In 2006, the Christian Science Monitor provided the following statistics for holiday fruitcake:
- People who say they’d toss a holiday fruitcake in the trash without delay (47%)
- People who say they would take time to regift a fruitcake (11%)
- 1:1 – the ratio of density of the average fruitcake to mahogany
- 25 – number of years that fruitcakes can be aged and still eaten as long as preserved well and sealed in an airtight container
One anecdotal story (true or tongue-in-cheek, you decide) was provided by Russell Baker in the New York Times (December 25, 1983), entitled Fruitcake is Forever:
Thirty-four years ago, I inherited the family fruitcake. Fruitcake is the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom. It had been in my grandmother’s possession since 1880, and she passed it to a niece in 1933. Surprisingly, the niece, who had always seemed to detest me, left it to me in her will….I would have renounced my inheritance except for the sentiment of the thing, for the family fruitcake was the symbol of our family’s roots. When my grandmother inherited it, it was already 86 years old, having been baked by her great-grandfather in 1794 as a Christmas gift for President George Washington. Washington, with his high-flown view of ethical standards for Government workers, sent it back with thanks, explaining that he thought it unseemly for Presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though they were only eight inches in diameter…There is no doubt…about the fruitcake’s great age. Sawing into it six Christmasses ago, I came across a fragment of a 1794 newspaper with an account of the lynching of a real-estate speculator in New York City.
A Personal Note
The next couple of weeks you will see mostly “best of” postings. I’ll be busy with research and working on the design of my new blog site which will come on-line with its own domain name (no longer hosted on WordPress) sometime in January or early February. Before that change, though, I’ll be back here on WordPress with more articles and an official announcement about the new site.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.