Fruitcake 101: A Concise Cultural History of This Loved and Loathed Loaf
The action of Truman Capote's 1956 short story "A Christmas Memory" is set into motion when a nameless sixty-something woman looks out her kitchen window and exclaims, "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather." Thus, she and her dearest friend, her 7-year-old, live-in cousin Buddy, begin amassing supplies for a seasonal four-day baking spree—which involves everything from snitching fallen nuts from a neighbor's pecan grove to procuring a quart of bootleg whiskey. However, on learning how his spirits are going to be used, the bootlegger flippantly remarks, "That's no way to waste good whiskey."
In spite of the goodwill and Christmas cheer fruitcakes are intended to embody, they are the running joke of the modern holiday season. Late-night comedian Johnny Carson got his digs in with lines like: "There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around." In English slang the word has come to mean someone who is eccentric or flat-out insane, while in Manitou Springs, Colorado there is an annual fruitcake toss where unwanted loaves are bid adieu by medieval means—namely, catapults. There seems to be a cultural expectation that we collectively loathe this token baked good.
But can fruitcake really be as bad as all that? That's hard to believe given its staying power, culturally speaking. The ancient Romans made a mishmash of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts and raisins as a sort of energy bar; however the modern fruitcake can be traced back to the Middle Ages as dried fruits became more widely available and fruited breads entered Western European cuisine. But variations on the fruitcake started springing up: Italy's dense, sweet-and-spicy panforte (literally, "strong bread") dates back to 13th century Sienna; Germany's stollen, a tapered loaf coated with melted butter and powdered sugar that's more bread-like in consistency, has been a Dresden delicacy since the 1400s and has its own annual festival; and then there's black cake in the 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. The tradition of making fruitcakes for special occasions such as weddings and holidays gained in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries and due to the cost of the materials, it was a grand indulgence. But, as with many traditions, how this confection came to be exclusively associated with Christmas season is a mystery.
Another mystery is the point at which the fruitcake fell from grace. Perhaps one nail was driven into the coffin in the 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. But since some of the companies producing these things have been in business for decades, this isn't an entirely satisfactory answer. They must be doing something right, right?
Personally, I'm a fan of the homemade stuff. This time of year I enjoy remembering people through food, and I crack out the family recipes that distinguished the Christmas season. Among them is Great Grandma Reamer's fruitcake, and although I never knew her personally, I know this one dish of hers and every year her guarded, liquor-kissed blend of dried fruits and miniature marshmallows is thrown together in my kitchen. And this holiday season I made my first attempt at making panforte, mainly because every year the Italian side of my family always remarks on how hard it is to find that particular fruitcake in the stores. We'll see if mine passes muster come Christmas morning.
You may have to employ the scientific method of trial and error before you find a fruitcake recipe that pleases your palette, but I dare you to give it a try. With all the international and regional variations out there to try—and even a recipe championed by Good Eats chef Alton Brown—you may end up creating a positive fruitcake tradition of your own. And for those of you looking for the recipe that's only vaguely described in "A Christmas Memory," check out Fruitcake by Truman Capote's aunt Marie Rudisill. She is perhaps best known for her guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno under her stage name "The Fruitcake Lady."