Did you know that December is National Fruitcake Month? No? Well, it is. Which makes sense with the holidays and all. Then again, with the possible exception of headcheese and haggis, is there a foodstuff more reviled and ridiculed? Sure, there are persons of a certain age who regard it fondly (if not for taste then nostalgia), but generally fruitcake attracts snark, its candied fruit (lurid), consistency (arid) and place within the re-gifting hierarchy (prominent) yielding irresistible fodder for the droll.
This wasn’t always the case. As a matter of fact, for hundreds—maybe thousands—of years, fruitcake was something of a popular staple. Some claim a primitive version was placed in ancient Egyptian tombs, a snack for the afterlife. Romans served it at festivals, their recipe calling for pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash. Soldiers fighting the Crusades carried a version that included preserved fruit, spices and honey.
In her article on HowStuffWorks, Julie Douglas explains how successive centuries of exploration and colonization contributed to what we think of as fruitcake today—an influx of inexpensive sugar from the New World; fruits and nuts from the Mediterranean; and, during the Victorian era, alcohol. All of which lead to fruitcakes becoming a popular indulgence at special occasions in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And then the bottom dropped out.
Robert Sietsema, writing in the Village Voice, notes that there are those who blame talk-show host Johnny Carson for the sudden downturn in popularity when he offered up this famous joke: “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” But this ignores that fact that the fruitcake had been the butt of jokes years before on popular television shows such as “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show.” Jesse Rhodes, writing in Smithsonian, wonders if “perhaps one nail…driven into the [fruitcake] coffin in the early 20th century [was] when mass-produced mail-order fruitcakes became available, creating the regrettably classic image of a dry, leaden cake encrusted with garish candied fruits and pecans.” Again, this theory has flaws—many companies who created and sent those fruitcakes are still very much in business.
Whatever the reason, everyone started getting in on the act. The word “fruitcake” took on a second meaning, this describing an eccentric or insane person. (“Nutty as a fruitcake!”) A town in Colorado—Manitou Springs—started hosting the Great Fruitcake Toss, their chucking methods ranging from hand-thrown to trebuchet-like devices to a Boeing-designed mock artillery piece that holds the toss record of 1,420 feet. Even Jay Leno, heir to Carson’s throne, got in on the gag, sampling a piece of fruitcake cut from one that had been passed down within a family for 125 years.
All of which makes it hard for even a tasty fruitcake to be taken seriously. A story in the Washington Post notes that Ciji Wagner, chef at Drafting Table in Washington, DC, would love to add a family recipe to the restaurant’s menu but worries about how it will be received. “That’s my conundrum,” she says, “figuring out how to convince people that it’s worth getting.”
Maybe Ciji can take confidence from the Food Network’s Alton Brown, whose popular Free Range Fruitcake recipe, which you can find here, is well-regarded enough to have been featured as the secret ingredient in a holiday battle between chefs Michael Symon and Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America. Among the creations to spring from the competition: Seafood Fruitcake Duo, Espresso Fruitcake, Quail with Fruitcake Waffle, Fruitcake Bread Dumpling with Bacon, Roasted Duck with Fruitcake Croutons, Fruitcake Pork & Beans with Grilled Cheese and Fruitcake Bread Pudding with Zabaglione. For those scoring at home, Chef Morimoto won by a candied fruit.