By Joy Neighbors
Fruitcake has been around for centuries.
Ancient Egyptians made a type of fruitcake that was left at the graves of loved ones as an offering to provide them with food in the afterlife. The ancient Romans took barley, pomegranate seeds, raisins, pine nuts and honeyed wine and cooked them into a mash to make food for soldiers to sustain their energy during battle.
During the Middle Ages, fruit, spices and honey were added and hunters carried the loaves on long hunting expeditions. In the 1700s, fruitcakes became more cake-like after the introduction of butter and vanilla. Fruits were now soaked in sugar and alcohol to last longer. But fruitcakes were thought to be “sinfully rich” so they were outlawed throughout Continental Europe for close to 100 years. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that officials loosened the rules to allow fruitcake to be eaten at weddings and holiday celebrations.
It was Queen Victoria who made fruitcake, or plum cake as the English called it, acceptable. The Queen established a tradition when she began to enjoy a slice with her tea in the afternoons. Other soon emulated her and fruitcake became one of the staples offered during English teatime.
Arrival in America
Fruitcake came to America with the early colonists and was again used to sustained soldiers during the American Revolution. Rum, bourbon, brandy or sherry was added to preserve the cake. Either the loaf would be wrapped in alcohol-soaked cloths to keep it from molding, or the alcohol was added directly into the mixture. By the end of the 19th Century, fruitcake had become a thoughtful gift to bestow upon friends.
In 1913, the first mail-order fruitcake was sent as a gift. By mid-century, U.S. charities sold fruitcakes as fundraising items. The colloquial phrase “nutty as a fruitcake” was first used in 1935 in reference to several Southern bakers who loaded their cakes with locally available and inexpensive nuts to help “fill out” the cake.
But fruitcake has taken its share of beatings. Jokes abound about the “lowly fruitcake” and how there’s only one that just keeps getting passed around. When did the fruitcake fall from grace? It’s hard to say, but mail order may have played a part. Large baking companies changed the expected rich flavors by selecting ingredients that were less expensive and using items that were commercially available. Over time, those warm holiday memories of Grandma’s homemade fruitcake were lost.
But there are those who continue to keep the family fruitcake tradition alive. One family in Michigan has passed down a fruitcake, baked in 1878, for more than a century. A fruitcake made near the beginning of the 20th Century was discovered intact in 2017. This cake was taken on the Robert Scott Expedition to the Antarctic in 1910. How well had the cake stood the test of time? The fruitcake was described as being in “excellent condition,” and the taste? “Almost edible.”
Today, fruitcakes bring in about $100 million in sales each year and are available as a light or dark cake. The lighter cake is made with golden raisins, candied citron, apricots, pineapples, maraschino cherries, and almonds. Darker fruitcakes are crafted with molasses, brown sugar, cherries, dried plums, cranberries, cherries, raisins, dates, pecans and walnuts. Many cooks still add a secret component to make their fruitcake stand out: apricot nectar, applesauce and mashed pumpkin are just a few ingredients that amp up the moistness and flavor while adding that special touch, just like Grandma did.