How Did the Fruitcake Become a National Joke, and Can It Be Redeemed?
See the fruitcake. Note the violently colored red and green "fruit" and suspect nuts that top the thick dough. Observe the same pseudo-fruit scattered within, waiting like landmines. Consider its place in the zeitgeist of American food. Recall the ridicule. Feel the confectionary schadenfreude. Look at that fucking gross, wrinkly, Christmas-themed brown bread that everyone loves to make fun of.
We all know what a fruitcake is, or at least we think we do. Culturally, it's a holiday punchline, a maligned icon, the unpalatable loaf on your Aunt Ruth's dessert table. It's the subject of a joke that somehow all of us have inherited and continue to repackage and deploy every Christmas.
The food has seen more cliches than kitchen tables for the better half of a century, but few people under 30, or at least the friends I asked, have even tried a fruitcake, much less hated the taste enough to inspire such seasonal vitriol. And none of them even have an Aunt Ruth.
How did we get here?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment fruitcake became a parody, but most refer to a certain talk show as ground zero of its downfall. Johnny Carson famously quipped, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake… There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year." This singular joke devolved into a Tonight Show holiday tradition of ripping on fruitcake, year after year.
Fast-forward to 2000 and the annual mockery had birthed a celebrity. Marie “The Fruitcake Lady” Rudisill became a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, thanks to her saucy grandma candor delivered in a distinct Southern drawl, and her book Fruitcake, a blend of recipes and a memoir. She once made fruitcake with Jay Leno and Mel Gibson -- a decidedly low point for the pastry in an already less-than-great career.
But Carson's joke happened in the '60s, which means the fruitcake sentiment was already pervasive and universal enough to resonate with a national audience. I needed to dig deeper. I needed to sink my teeth into the fruitcake's mystique.
Before anything though, I needed to put my taste buds on the line and take an actual bite of the devil's loaf to see if my jokes all these years had been unfounded.
The raisins and "cherries" of the crumbling cake bounced around my mouth, the semi-sweet, pungent taste radiated to the back of my throat.
Conventional fruitcake really does suck.
The practical definition of a "fruitcake" isn't particularly nuanced. It's composed of a bread base, dried or candied fruit and/or nuts, and alcohol (a true fruitcake must contain alcohol). It can have myriad spices and flavorings, but as long as it's composed of those three essentials, it is a fruitcake. Shape -- whether it's a log, a bundt-cake situation, or something else entirely -- makes no difference.
Because fruitcake is so loosely defined, versions exist all over the world. For example, stollen, or even the Italian panettone. The American fruitcake bears little resemblance to its international counterparts. It was introduced to the Americas by way of Europe in the 16th century, but it wasn't until mail order fruitcakes became available in America in 1913 that it became the lazy man's go-to gift. For a modern fruitcake model, look to Colin Street Bakery's classic or the equally famous Claxton fruitcake. These pictures can be considered NSFW, if your workplace frowns upon dry heaving at your desk.
We envision fruitcake as a quickly assembled, cheaply constructed facsimile.
Virginia Glass -- self-schooled pastry purveyor and amateur fruitcake historian -- and NYU professor of food studies and author, Amy Bentley, believe that much of the resentment towards fruitcake stems from the disconnect of what fruitcake actually is, versus what Americans have come to believe it is. In their opinion, redemption will only happen if the dessert can be redefined. What we envision as fruitcake is a quickly assembled, cheaply constructed facsimile. Basing all your fruitcake hate on these assembly-line counterfeits is like saying you don’t like roast beef because you aren’t a fan of Arby’s. This is the problem.
“Mass-produced fruitcakes, the kind that most people are exposed to during the holidays, are nothing like what a fruitcake should be. A fruitcake should be rich, it should taste like dried fruit and spices and alcohol. It should have a moist texture -- it’s not supposed to be dry and crusty. Here’s where I think it all went wrong: it’s those goddamn red and green glacé cherries. I don’t know what they are. But they bear no resemblance to real fruit,” Glass said, her voice loaded with resentment.
"Here’s where I think it all went wrong: those goddamn red and green glacé cherries."
"Here's what I do: no figs, no dates -- this is my own personal preference, and they are just gross. My fruitcake uses good, single-barrel Scotch, golden raisins, dried sour Michigan cherries, diced dried apricots, candied orange peels, and some honey with dark brown sugar and a bit of salt. It should be dense and moist. It should be delicious. It shouldn’t be what you see packaged and mailed and slowly dying on kitchen tables across the country during the holidays. But it’s hard to get people to change their minds.”
I'm not sure if the holiday cheer is clouding my judgment, but does that fruitcake recipe actually sound... good? National tastes, like trends, evolve with each generation. As evidenced by the last decade's artisanal food boom, young people are interested in food and drinks with complex flavor profiles, like dark chocolate, craft beers, strong coffee, and gourmet cheeses. We're also actively rejecting the unhealthy, processed foods we grew up eating.
“The American taste profile -- our palate -- for much of the 20th century was centered around sugar, fat, and salt," Bentley said. “In terms of cake -- the kind of ‘Betty Crocker’ style dominated the last century. It was very light, very sweet, and really, the antithesis of fruitcake. Fruitcake is just a taste that fell out of habit, and became really a dessert associated with the old and out of touch. And as a result, ended up a punchline for jokes around Christmas time.”
So, can the fruitcake make a comeback?
Bentley thinks yes: “If a movement was started at a high-end restaurant, or a trendy, artisanal pop-up shop, or bakery with a celebrated chef -- if it could shed this negative perception, and people could be exposed to real, well-crafted fruitcake. There is room to rediscover the fruitcake. It can be really good. People would find analogues -- it’s not a totally foreign taste, and there’s more than one way to make it, and that always lends itself well to trends. We like things that are familiar, and we like novelty. Fruitcake can cover both bases, if made correctly and with some style.”
Taste is cyclical, so it stands to reason that at some point in the future, our food- and fad-obsessed culture will embrace the fruitcake once again. If a hot chef makes a decent stab at bringing new spins on fruitcakes to the food world, they might just have a hit. “Oh, someone will open up an artisanal fruitcake stand, eventually, somewhere in Brooklyn or Soho and it will come back in favor again. Someone will get totally rich off this idea," Glass said.
She continued: "The big trick: getting people to actually try good, homemade fruitcakes. Fruitcake is truly a cake that comes out of love. If you make it right, it takes literal days. You should soak the fruit for days at a time to make sure they are plump and moist -- in fact, one of the reasons mass-produced fruitcakes are so dry, is because the fruit inside hasn’t been soaked long enough, and it sucks up the moisture from the bread itself. But really, if you are going to make a fruitcake for someone, that person must really mean a lot to you, because of the effort involved. It’s a notable dessert, for this reason -- and it deserves another shot.”
The American palate is primed for a fruitcake revival. So, if there are any pastry chefs out there who are up to the challenge, I'm here, waiting to try your homemade fruitcake. I promise I won't make fun of it. Also, please don't poison me.