Don’t Laugh. It’s Fruitcake!

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Fruitcake has been the butt of jokes and object of ridicule for the longest time; so long, in fact, that the mere mention of that holiday concoction often evokes amusement if not outright scorn. When not dragged through the dirt and tossed through the air, it’s become the gift that many love to give which many more hate to receive.

I remember a fruitcake that was received as a gift by friends of mine on Christmas Day 1975. On Christmas Day 1985, this very same cake miraculously reappeared as a gift to some other friends of mine. God knows how many discontented recipients, be they friends or strangers to me, passed on this unfortunate cake in that intervening decade (and perhaps beyond) before it was finally laid to rest in someone or others’ trash pail.

In spite of the laughter, fruitcake has enjoyed a rich and proud history. The ancient Romans are believed to have invented the treat which was a combination of raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and honey wine into a cake called “satura.”  In fact, “the word satire, a literary form invented by the Romans, derives from the dish: a mixture of many ingredients both sweet and sour. But it is only in recent years that fruitcake has developed its more contemporary reputation of being a parody.”

Far from being something to laugh at, fruitcakes have traditionally been something to prize. According to Lorna J. Sass, a food historian and cookbook author, dried fruit has always had an “edge of luxury to it.” Fruitcake is prepared differently in other parts of the world and often goes by various other names; for instance, it’s called “panforte” in Italy while it’s known as “black cake” in the Caribbean and “plum pudding” in Britain.

Here in America, fruitcake’s present-day notoriety grew as a direct result of its very popularity during the Christmas season. Commercially processed fruitcakes were the more widely available and, hence, cheaper types found in many supermarkets and department stores. These usually made “perfect gifts” for last minute shoppers in the market for a cheap yet colorful-looking, if not very tasty, offering. Seth Greenberg, a dessert expert, says that “it’s not the cake but rather the dried out, overly sweet, artificially colored fruits so many bakers cram into them.”

For more on the wonders and delights, ups and downs, of fruitcake see the NY Times article Just in Time, a Defense of Fruitcake; it was published in 1989 but it’s as relevant now as it was then.

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