Blame the fruitcake plague on the cheap sugar that arrived in Europe from the colonies in the 16th century.
Some goon discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in successively greater concentrations of sugar, intensifying color and flavor. Not only could native plums and cherries be conserved, but heretofore unavailable fruits were soon being imported in candied form from other parts of the world. Having so much sugar-laced fruit engendered the need to dispose of it in some way—thus the fruitcake. By the early 19th century, the typical recipe was heavy as lead with citrus peel, pineapples, plums, dates, pears, and cherries.
Whether or not anyone actually enjoyed eating it, fruitcake persisted, finding fertile soil in the New World, especially in places where fresh fruit was difficult to come by. Nuts were introduced into the formula, probably because America’s foremost fruitcake makers—Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and Claxton Bakery of Claxton, Georgia—were located in rural Southern communities with a surplus of cheap nuts; indeed, the Corsicana cake includes pecans. The expression “nutty as a fruitcake” was coined in 1935.
In spite of the size and preeminence of America’s fruitcake industry, the product’s popularity has drastically declined over the years. Some blame Johnny Carson, who found in the maligned cake a rich source of jokes: “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Others point to an aging demographic that finds grandmothers sending cakes to their grown grandchildren, who privately throw them away, or even do it publicly at events like the annual Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where, if you don’t own a fruitcake, you can rent one for 25 cents. Further evidence of fruitcake’s unpopularity: Ever seen one on a restaurant menu?
If, as the bakeries claim, sales continue to grow, you’ve got to wonder where all those fruitcakes are going. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a substantial number are sent to Japan, where customers appreciate the dense texture, jaw-aching sweetness, and surfeit of colorful fruit. In anticipation of the Christmas holiday, I decided to revisit the fruitcake, collecting as many as I could lay my hands on. Then I tasted them in the privacy of my home, using the savor-and-spit technique favored by wine critics. Had anyone been watching, it would have made a droll spectacle. Below are notes on the country’s most notable cakes.
Claxton Bakery offers two different versions, one light and one dark, each weighing two pounds ($13.95, shipping included). Instead of the traditional ring configuration, these cakes are brick-shaped, making them easy to throw. The paler one is something like a pound cake into which somebody has accidentally spilled candied fruits. The darker, its top annoyingly paved with raisins, has only slightly more flavor.
The Collin Street Bakery’s one-and-seven-eighths-pound product assumes the standard hemorrhoid-cushion configuration and is considerably more expensive ($18.75 plus $13 two-day UPS), though the decorative red tin—incongruously featuring a Victorian couple trudging through the snow next to a cowboy twirling a lariat—will be good for storing stuff. While it’s clearly of better quality, and with an exterior prettily decorated with pecans, the cake’s flavor is similarly blah.
Demonstrating further the decreasing popularity of fruitcake, visits to area stores yielded few specimens. By early November Macy’s Cellar had an entire department devoted to Christmas sweets, with only a single fruitcake among them (though cousins like Italian panettone and German stollen were more readily available). Made in Poplarville, Mississippi, Baker Maid fruitcake comes in a handy one-pound size ($12.99), half a cake carved into eight plastic-wrapped slices. This evocation is the darkest and richest, though it suffers from a chemical aftertaste that can probably only be banished by a slug of eggnog.
Confirming the Japanese admiration for fruitcake, the department store Takashimaya offers it year-round. Each gift-wrapped box contains 16 miniature gold ingots of cake (10.77 ounces, $15), and the list of ingredients makes a refreshingly short read, with no numbered dyes, soy lecithin, or mono- and diglycerides. Though this cake depends too much on raisins, the simplicity of the flavor and its slightly bitter edge are both welcome.
Probably out of deference to Bible-thumpers, most of the aforementioned Southern examples are teetotaler cakes. It turns out alcohol-bearing versions are inherently superior, since the booze neutralizes the cloying sweetness. Stunningly, nearly all are made by monks. It’s hard to believe that men of God are busily undermining the sobriety of the populace (including children) by pouring the hard stuff over Christmas cakes. The most notorious of these comes from the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, who make a fruitcake crumbly and voluptuous (2.5 pounds, $26.50 including shipping), though the ungainly combo of burgundy wine and Kentucky bourbon suggests an explosion at the liquor store. The mystic poet Thomas Merton ended his days at this abbey, and I like to think of him popping a final fruitcake into the oven as he draws his dying breath.
The competing cake produced by monks at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, furnishes a stouter alcoholic belt, and the purple prose of the brochure reveals the happier combination of booze they use: “The Brothers add a generous measure of fine sherry wine. After slow and gentle baking, each cake is laced with traditional brandy and topped with a honey glaze.” I’m tempted to add: ” . . . while the monks cavort in the nude with fruitcake tins on their tonsured heads.” Nevertheless, this fruitcake wins the prize.
As I dabbed lightly at my lips with a napkin, I contemplated the more difficult task ahead: How was I going to get rid of the cakes?
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