A look at the origin of the holidays’ least favorite dessert.
Always the butt of the Christmas joke, the lowly fruitcake has nonetheless held fast to its seat at America’s traditional holiday table. What most winter revelers don’t know is that the history of the fruitcake is as richly varied and dense as the holiday dessert itself.
A heavily spiced cake laden with dried fruit and nuts then steeped in brandy, whisky, or other spirits, the fruitcake was made to persevere, and persevere it has.
Earliest references to the fruitcake come from Ancient Egypt, where it was placed in tombs of loved ones to serve as nourishment on their journey to the afterlife. The density of fruit and nuts — both luxuries to be left with the dead — reflected the wealth and respectability of the dearly departed.
The cake remained a symbol of status as spices, dried fruits, and nuts made their way to medieval Europe during the crusades between 1095 and 1291.
Crusaders returning home from the Middle East brought spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to the tables of wealthy lords and kings. Likewise, fruits from these countries, in the form of dried dates, figs, or candied citrus, made their way to European tables. Because of the connection these foods had to the Holy Land, the fruitcake became a confection of honor to be saved for the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter.
Later, whether through European colonization or immigration, the fruitcake — because of its characteristic preservation and ability to sustain long voyages — made its way around the world, taking on the flavors and traditions of each new home. In Caribbean kitchens, the confection is known as Black Cake, and it carries the flavors of the islands in the form of sweet mangoes, pineapple, and a burnt brown sugar syrup; rather than brandy or whisky, the cake is steeped in rum. In Ireland, the cake is known as Barmbrack and is eaten during the fall holidays. Tiny objects, such as coins or rings, are baked within and signify the good fortune of those who find them.
Here at home, the fruitcake has long been mocked as an inedible concoction of refined sugar and gummy red cherries. But with the advent of the foodie movement, combined with the interest in food preservation and DIY projects, there appears to be a fruitcake renaissance.
Different recipes add blueberries, plums, or nectarines to nut choices like walnuts, pecans, or almonds. Chic preservation methods use traditional spirits rather than refined sugars. And, with today’s busy schedules, the fact that the fruitcake can be made well ahead of the last-minute holiday rush appeals to many cooks.
So, as our thoughts turn to holiday feasts and the sharing of traditions, take a minute to reconsider the fruitcake. It’s made a long journey to our shores and our tables, and it bears tidings from across the world.