The Inevitable, Detestable Fruitcake

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The holidays are upon us, and so are the sickeningly sweet cakes decorated with neon-colored fruits. That's right, the fruitcake. Some people despise them, some people love them and some people couldn't care either way. But the sweet has cemented its place in American culture. So much so that Uncle Sam sent 4,117 pounds of fruitcake to U.S. troops overseas in 2002. There's even a society to protect and preserve the fruitcake.

The Egyptians buried pharaohs and other high-status individuals with fruitcake in their tombs to represent the sacred food of the afterlife. In the Middle Ages, crusaders reportedly carried cakes laden with fruit and nuts on long trips to keep themselves supplied with a ready energy boost. The cakes were made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins in a barley mash. In Europe, fruits and nuts from the end of a harvest were baked into a cake that was saved for an entire year. Before the next harvest, the cake was eaten in hopes that it would bring a successful harvest. The fruitcake later achieved royal status and earned a regular spot at Victorian-era high teas in the 1880s.

Recently, though, the fruitcake has fallen out of favor with the American public. Johnny Carson, famed host of The Tonight Show, once said, "The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep sending it to each other."

The fruitcake's ingredients seem harmless enough:

  • chopped candied fruit
  • dried fruit
  • nuts
  • spices
  • spirits (optional) to soak the cake

And many insist that tasty fruitcakes do exist. Others, however, have completely given up on the idea of eating them.

A small city in Colorado has found an innovative way to get rid of all those accumulated fruitcakes. Each year for the past 14 years, during the first week in January, Manitou Springs hosts the "Great Fruitcake Toss." It isn't a free-for-all; this is a well-organized event. “Fruitcake Toss Tech Inspectors” make sure each fruitcake follows the rules: they must contain glaceed fruits, nuts and flour; the must be edible; they must be visible to the inspectors. But if you don't have your own cake, you can rent one for a buck. Once just a measure of distance, the competition has evolved to include categories and age groups.  The event has a charitable side to it as well. Contestants pay a small fee or donate a canned good.

In 2006, NPR profiled a scientist in Maryland who blew up fruitcakes to test their caloric content. Food scientist Thom Castonguay at the University of Maryland takes small, freeze-dried pieces of fruitcake, blows them up using a adiabatic bomb calorimeter and measures their calorie content. He compresses small pieces, submerges them in water and then blows up the fruitcake bits. The explosion heats up the water, and Castonguay calculates the calories count from that.

What do you do with the fruitcakes you receive during the holidays?

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