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Mary Elizabeth Williams

How fruitcake became a holiday punchline

The holidays always bring up conflicts — not just about family or politics, but important things like which seasonal treats are disgusting and which are delicious. Strong feelings tend to arise when we’re confronted with peppermint or eggnog. But there’s no holiday food that riles people up quite like fruitcake. An easy punchline, a dish Woman’s Day has said "everyone secretly hates," The Root calls "the worst" and Delish recommends you simply "throw in the trash," fruitcake still somehow never dies. In 2021, PBS reported that 2 million of them are sold each year. It can’t all be hate gifting, right?

As someone who recoils at the mere thought of candied peel or maraschino cherries, I too have reflexively avoided fruitcake for most of my life. But this year, I started wondering if maybe I’d been too hard on the treat all this time. Maybe fruitcake has its reputation as a bad tasting brick because a few bad fruitcakes have sullied its name. Maybe, not all fruitcakes?

“Fruitcake is interesting,” says Rick Meyer, president of the Beatrice Bakery Co., a Nebraska company whose popular fruitcakes are made from a family recipe that dates back to 1917. “It can be really bad or really good.” Meyer thinks part of the bad rap comes from one of the cake's make attractions — its near indestructibility. "Experts say that fruitcake was started clear back in ancient Egypt. And in Roman times, they fed soldiers that because it lasted forever, because sugar is a preservative." With its hearty mix of dried fruits, nuts, alcohol and sugar, its a dish designed to go the distance and fill you up — a rough ancestor of the Power Bar. Meyer speculates that "Through time, somebody's got to find something to say. 'That's impossible, because today's foods don't last like yesterday's foods. There's no way that can be good.' And then pretty soon, it's a doorstop." 

Kevin Turner, founder and CEO of The Grilling Master, similarly wonders if the cake's durability has at times been its downfall. Noting that it's "deeply rooted in holiday tradition," he wonders if that's why "Fruitcake has gotten the ill reputation of being the dessert that is regifted… the first choice to be passed on."

But there are other theories about why fruitcake is so often so scorned. A few years ago, Smithsonian posited that the problems began "in early 20th century, 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." And food writer Amy Hand, contributing writer at The Skillful Cook, thinks it comes down to expectations.

"Can I make a confession?" she asks. "I learned to make a fruitcake in cooking school and never made another for my whole career! They truly are a holiday punchline. To understand why fruitcake has become such a joke," she says, "you need to put yourself in the shoes of a small child. A fruitcake looks beautiful and scrumptious with its dark chocolatey color and white frosting. But once they take a bit it's full of dried fruits and potent alcohol; two flavors that are bound to spoil a little one's day." 

My own experience of fruitcake tracks with all those disappointments — mass produced confections that looked cool but tasted aggressively awful. And while I usually just limit myself reactions to a simple, "Thanks but no thanks," the feelings these things provoke can be outsized. As Dean Harper, founder at the private chef services brand Harper Fine Dining, notes, "There is a community in America that annually gathers to launch fruitcakes into extinction."

Yet surely fruitcake, with its long, purposeful history and eternal popularity, can't be all bad. Rick Meyer suspects that the cake's harshest critics either have never even tried it, "or they have eaten some form of a fruitcake somewhere that wasn't very good." As with most things, it comes down to how it's made. "It's the citron and the orange peel and the lemon peel and some of those old school preservatives; that's what makes a fruitcake tastes terrible," says Meyer. "And I'm with you. Any fruitcake I've ever tasted that had any of that on there, if you expect it to taste anything other than awful," he chuckles, "you're gonna let yourself down."

Instead, if you're fruitcake curious, try one from a bakery where you know what the ingredients are, and approve of them. Beatrice Baking Co., for instance, offers not just a traditional cake with raisins, cherries and nuts (with no green chunks anywhere) but other versions like pineapple and macadamia. They recommend serving it chilled, so it doesn't crumble. Or make one yourself — there are loads of recipes out there for homemade fruitcake that sound amazing — moist and dense and just the right amount of boozy.

"It's often the strength of the alcohol that makes fruitcake so intense," says Amy hand. "I recommend being stingy with your alcohol and using the minimum required in your recipe. Don't be like Grandma and spill a little extra booze in there for luck." And Kevin Turner suggests experiment with different ingredients. "Use your creativity in making your fruitcake a dessert that everyone enjoys," he says. "I skip the processed candied fruits and opt for high-quality, naturally sweet ingredients. Dried fruits like apricots, dates, and figs add a rich, natural sweetness without the need for excess sugar. I also incorporate fresh fruits like apples or oranges, finely diced for a burst of flavor. This not only enhances the taste but also provides a more vibrant and wholesome sweetness."

And Sunita Yousuf, creator of The Wannabe Cook, warns that "You must soak the dry fruits before mixing them with the batter," adding, "but it can be tricky. Soaking the dry fruits for a few seconds will turn them into colorful stones after baking while over-soaking them will destroy the taste. Soaking the fruits overnight will be enough to get the perfect chewy consistency of the fruits from fruitcakes." She also calls for a restrained approach to fats. "An excess amount of greasing makes the fruitcakes dry — especially on the top part. Over-greasing a pan can cause the crust to practically fry, and if the flour is added, it can burn, leaving the finished fruit cake with a hard, dark crust. The cake's crust gets tougher and drier as it cools, gets stored, or is served."

Once you find or create a fruitcake you love, there's no law that says you have to confine it to one short time of the year — not any more anyway. "The tradition of fruitcakes dates back centuries," says Dean Harper, "though their association with Christmas only became widespread in the Middle Ages. Obscurely enough, England passed some laws that prohibited the use of cake outside of holidays, leading many to treat it as a celebratory treat. On top of that, England saw an emerging tradition of eating the Twelfth Night cake to commemorate the end of the Christmas season. Naturally, this transitioned to the USA during the period of colonialization." We're a free country now, who says we can't enjoy a fruitcake that actually tastes good, all year long? It's just about having an open mind, and the right cake. "I sometimes tell people that marketing a really good fruitcake, it's like reading the book 'Green Eggs and Ham,'" says Rick Meyer. "You don't know what you don't know."

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