Fruitcake: A Timeline of the World's Most-Scorned Cake

When you receive a fruitcake, do you wish it had been a PajamaGram? 

You're not alone. Although statistics about fruitcake consumption are notoriously hard to come by and unverifiable, one poll shows that 1/3 of the cakes remain uneaten every year. What happens to these orphaned cakes? Some end up at the fruitcake toss in Manitou Springs, where "a limited quantity of fruitcakes are available to rent." 

But fruitcake's reputation for robustness and longevity is nothing new. Intensive research in library databases, including Gale Powersearch, Gale Virtual Reference, and the New York Times Backfile, reveals a complex history:  

  • Ancient Egyptians tucked fruitcake into the tombs of the newly departed to take into the afterlife. Not only was the dried fruit, nuts, and dense body of the cake durable enough for the journey, it also demonstrated the wealth of the giver and the high regard in which the loved one was held.  
  • George Washington politely sent back a Christmas fruitcake, explaining that he thought it unseemly for presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though it was only eight inches in diameter.
  • In Truman Capote's 1956 short story "A Christmas Memory," a woman and her young friend spend four days gathering ingredients for and then baking fruitcake. A visit to a bootlegger for the whiskey prompted him to muse, "That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”
  • In 1988, Johnny Carson famously declared, "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."
  • Season 3, episode 7 of The Great British Baking Show has a Victorian-themed competition, which includes the tennis-court-topped fruitcake, which is apparently common in England.  
  • On December 17, 2017, it was revealed that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are defying British tradition and serving banana cake instead of fruitcake at their wedding.  

There are, of course, people who like fruitcake. An informal survey of library staff included comments such as, "Well, I don't seek it out, but if it's offered I'll try some", and "My brother sends me a little one every year, so yes, I do eat it. I always share it with my mother". 

For those of you who fall into that camp and would like to make your own fruitcake, check out the recipe for "Good Fruitcake" recommended by the New York Times in 2003, adapted from Woman's Day magazine, November 1965.  

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Written by Lisa on December 21, 2017

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Leigh on December 21, 2017

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HA! Loved your blog post, Lisa :-) I wonder if fruitcake was kept in bomb shelters that were everywhere back during the Cold War period?! I'll bet fruitcake would last through an atomic bomb explosion...great how it does keep for a long time!

I've always associated it with Christmas--Merry Christmas one and all & have another slice of delicious fruitcake with that hot cider or eggnog :-) Cheers

Anonymous on December 21, 2017

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I just read today that royal wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes. All of that pomp and circumstances followed by...fruitcake.

Jude on December 23, 2017

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It seems to me that fruitcake's origins are easily traceable to traditional English Christmas pudding and other dense English cakes featuring raisins and cinnamon--all of which you'll find on store shelves today in the UK. The puddings are typically aged for a year, served flambe with custard poured over it.

Maybe the key to fruitcake lies in this observation in the New York Times article that you link to: "In a good fruitcake the batter should barely be perceptible, acting merely as adhesive to bind the tasty bits, namely fruit and nuts." I make a couple of cakes each year using my mom's recipe from the mid-'50s, dense with candied cherries and pineapple, walnuts, and raisins. I think the key to her recipe is the addition of lemon extract, which complements the fruit and freshens up the flavor. It's then soaked in rum for a month before serving.

I once offered some to a visiting Frenchman who was unfamiliar with fruitcake, hence blissfully ignorant of the popular bias against it. He requested a second slice. It's gotten good reviews from other people as well but I never offer it to avowed fruitcake haters. I'm not out to convert anyone and it seems to me to be a waste of good fruitcake.

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Thank you for your comment, Jude. You have inspired me to actually try some fruitcake this year. Happy holidays!

GenineP on January 2, 2018

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The tennis court fruit cake was a new one for me-- interesting!

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