History of Christmas Fruitcake
You may be wondering:
“My friendly neighborhood historian is writing an article on fruitcake? Is he as nutty as a fruitcake?”
And therein begins our tale…
The Phrase “Nutty as a Fruitcake”
Nutty as a fruitcake was first recorded in 1935, but the adjective nutty meaning “crazy or eccentric” goes back to 1821. I admit that I have been called eccentric. But more importantly…
Today, December 27, is National Fruitcake Day.
What is Fruitcake?
It’s a pastry, bread, or cake made of nuts, dried or candied fruits, spices, grain, and optionally soaked in booze. There are many recipes. It was a special food for weddings or Christmas since at least the 18th and 19th centuries.
Origin of Fruitcake
While some historians trace it back to ancient Egypt as a food buried with the dead — it keeps for years — fruitcake became popular in ancient Rome some 2,000 years ago when they served a cake called satura that was made of pomegranate seeds, raisins, pine nuts, and barley mash baked in a ring-shaped confection.
During the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and candied fruit became popular ingredients.
With the growth and geographical expansion of the British Empire following the 16th century, its Colonies provided sugar; in the New World of the West Indies, cheap brown sugar also produced rum. Fruits were brought in from the Mediterranean area along with nuts.
In the 19th century, fruitcake made with butter became traditional as a wedding cake in England. Both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served fruitcakes at their weddings.
Americans inherited this confection from the British and called it Christmas cakes or plumb cakes. Note, this is not the same as “figgy pudding.” The latter is steamed for hours before serving, and usually, the generous addition of alcohol is set on fire before presenting.
Fruitcake’s high sugar concentration gives it moisture-stabilizing properties, making it resistant to mold and bacterium, making it effectively eternal. According to the Guinness organization, at a food museum in Switzerland, a 4,176-year-old cake was found in an Egyptian tomb.
Fruitcake in the Media
How did fruitcake become a slur? How did it become the spumoni of the pastry world?
Truman Capote‘s 1956 short story “A Christmas Memory” describes a time spent with his eccentric cousin, who would commence fruitcake-making when she deemed it proper “fruitcake weather.” Whiskey played a large part in the production of the fruitcake.
But it’s perhaps the former host of “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson, who best determined fruitcake’s place in the modern psyche. Deriding the loaf as a holiday reject, he once claimed that,
“The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
He was not the first to deride the seasonal loaf, but this anecdote persists.
Fruitcake around the world
Italy’s dense, sweet-and-spicy panforte (literally, “strong bread”) dates back to the 13th-century Tuscan town of Sienna.
Genoa’s is denser and called pandolce or “sweet bread.”
Milan has more of a bread loaf consistency confection that is lighter but still includes dried candied fruits.
My favorite Italian restaurant in South Kensington, London hangs panettone in foil-wrapped packages from cords above the diners, as decorations and advertisements.
Germany’s stollen is a tapered loaf coated with melted butter and dusted with powdered sugar that’s more bread-like in consistency. It has been a Dresden delicacy since the 1400s and has its own annual StollenFest. It was only after Pope Innocent VIII granted the use of butter in the 1400s, lifting the church regulation, that milk and butter became stollen ingredients. There are Austrian and Dutch recipes as well. I get mine at a local Dutch bakery.
Black cake in the British Caribbean Islands, a boozy descendant of Britain’s plum pudding where the fruit is soaked in rum for months, or even as long as a year. Yo ho!
Poland and Bulgaria have keks, a loaf-shaped sponge cake.
When I was young, my family enjoyed Romanian cozonak during the holidays and weddings.
Portugal has its bolo rei, where each cake has a single fava bean inside. Whoever gets the slice with the bean is supposed to buy the cake next year!
Vietnam has a fruitcake called banh bo mut, but that’s made for the Lunar New Year.
If December 27 is National Fruitcake Day, less than a month later, it’s the Great Fruitcake Toss Day.
About 10 miles from me, nearby Manitou Springs, Colorado, this year celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Great Fruitcake Toss. Since 1996 people have found an alternative to simply re-gifting their fruitcakes. They call it “recycling.”
Every year, usually on the first Saturday in January — but this year, on January 23, 2021 — Manitou Springs had a contest to see who can throw their fruitcakes the farthest and with the greatest accuracy.
People build various projectile machines: catapults, surgical tubing slingshots, pneumatic canons, or just hurl the cakes by hand (you can rent one if you don’t bring your own.) To make up for all the lost food, everyone competing has to bring a donation to the local food bank — anything except fruitcake.
The Too Good to Toss Fruitcake Bake-off allows local bakers to compete against each other for the coveted title of Fruitcake King or Queen as determined by the community. Winners are based on who makes the best organic, non-GMO, natural fruitcakes.
They even have their own Facebook Group.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian