Fruitcakes— we’ve all seen them in the movies or grandma’s kitchen. The heavy and dark cake that looks like it went through seven stages of baking and sounds like a fist thumping against a wooden table when set down on a surface. Yet, there is a day made for it. That’s right, this day is called National Fruitcake Day and it’s made for the celebration of the cake that we all seem to find synonymous with a brick.
History of National Fruitcake Day
While none of us know the true creator of the fruitcake, many historians believe that fruitcakes originated from Rome, over 2,000 years ago! Historians believe that one of the earliest recipes known comes from ancient Rome listing pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into a barley mash. Then there are records from the Middle Ages documenting that they added honey, spices, and preserved fruits into the original mix.
Starting in the 16th century, sugar from the American Colonies along with the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits, ended up creating an enormous excess of candied fruits, thus resulting in making fruit cakes more affordable and popular in regions around the world. The fruitcakes that began in the Roman era are quite different from today, which can be iced, gluten-free, lactose-free, diabetic, alcoholic, or just a regular old fruitcake.
Fruitcakes share an interesting history in much of Europe. It is said that in the 18th century, European-made fruitcakes were banned from production for having too much butter and sugar. These ingredients were restricted for being unhealthy. After these cakes were allowed to be sold again in the 19th century, they were common in high-class European weddings.
Fruitcakes have an incredible shelf life, they can remain on the shelves for many, many years and still be edible and non-harmful to the human body. An example of this is in a 2003 episode of The Tonight Show, where Jay Leno sampled a piece of a fruitcake baked in 1878 which was kept as an heirloom by a family in Michigan. For years now, the fruitcake has been a joke in American culture, being ridiculed for its name and how it appears. A recurring example of this can be found in a variety of television shows and movies, where the fruitcake will fall on a person’s body and they will complain about it being as hard as a brick.
The reason that fruitcakes can remain edible for long periods of time is actually in the cooking methods. The fruits and nuts used are often dried and then soaked in a sugar substance, which means that they can remain on the shelf without adding preservatives. In addition to this method, some recipes also include alcohol, or involve an alcohol-soaked storage cloth during the baking process, removing harmful bacteria that decrease the shelf life.
In the Caribbean, the fruit is soaked for months in concentrated rum, adding an alcoholic flavor and additional years of shelf life. Some brands are even known to have expiration dates twenty-five years from the production date!
Fruitcakes in Pop Culture
Besides being a holiday dessert, fruitcakes are often found in pop culture references as well. They have been the center of inspirational life quotes, such as this one from A. Lee Martinez, which states: “Reality is like a fruitcake; pretty enough to look at but with all sorts of things lurking just beneath the surface.”
Even the popular singer Jimmy Buffett named one of his songs after it. Truman Capote, known for his book In Cold Blood, discussed the popular dessert in his short story “A Christmas Memory.”
How to celebrate National Fruitcake Day
To celebrate this day is easy. Gather the family together in the kitchen and make the fruitcake together, with fruits and nuts that everyone will enjoy. Then, after the fruitcake is done baking, serve it up to everyone and perhaps huddle around on the couch to watch a holiday movie to add to the holiday spirit that surrounds the month of December.
Another way to celebrate this day is to try baking fruitcake variations from around the world! Here are some world variations:
- Germany: topped with powdered or spiced sugar.
- Caribbean: made with the addition of rum.
- Portugal: baked with a fava bean inside – whoever finds the bean in their slice bakes the cake for next holiday season!
Some cities in the United States also celebrate fruitcakes (or their shared dislike of them) by hurling them in slingshots with a prize awarded for the furthest flying fruitcake!
Fruitcake may have had a humble beginning somewhere, but as time goes on, the dish becomes more popular, and sometimes… not in the way anyone would expect it to.