Would you toss your cookies for a fruit cake?

John M. Dabbs

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Sugar cookies are the top desssert for Christmas in the USA. Fruitcakes, not so much.

Death of the fruitcake

Is it time for fruitcake to die? I think not. While it's waning popularity comes from the litany of bad jokes and euphamisms about the desert, some of it is well deserved. The colorful holiday treat most of us are familiar with, is identified as Christmas Tree colored fruit-laiden brick. Some people would say it is more useful as a door stop or paperweight than as an edible dessert.

The holiday staple's popularity has seen a significant decrease in recent years. A survey from Public Policy Polling in 2015 stated only 38% of Americans liked fruitcake.

Qualities

The primary quality that made fruitcake a staple in our lives was its longevity. Fruitcakes are usually edible for much longer periods than traditional cakes or fruits. Fruitcakes were often sent through the mail to friends and family without worrying about them going bad before they were delivered. These were also sent to many servicemen stationed overseas during both war and peacetime. (Cookies were also sent, though they often didn't arrive intact - per my paternal grandfather, who served in World War II.)

Royal quality

Fruitcake takes on a different connotation in British life. The British monarchy has a tradition of wedding fruitcake.

Pastry Chef Chris Dodd at London's Dalloway Terrace says the wedding fruitcake “is an elaborate mixture of re-constituted dried fruits, which have been soaked in fruit juices and an alcoholic beverage such as port, sherry, rum, or even whiskey. To these, a dark brown sugar is added, together with a mix of fragrant spices, butter, and flour. The final product is then coated in a marzipan layer, followed by royal icing, to create a smooth and elegant finish.” - in a 2018 Vogue article.

The royal concoctions were traditionally served at medieval feasts. Since then, they've been offered at important celebrations (Easter, Christmas, weddings, and christenings) according to Sidney Mintz in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.

The dessert was deamed perfect for the elite of England. It was a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The ingredients (dried fruits, alcohol, and spices) were symbols of the vast British Empire. It was a perfect dessert in the days before refrigeration, as it doesn't spoil.

Anatarctic explorers found a106 year old fruitcake in 2017. The fruitcake was reported to be in perfect condition, and edible. It is believed to be from Robert Falcon Scott's expedition.

In the United States, fruitcakes were initially embraced by colonists, with sponge cake taking over. English tradition continues with the wedding fruitcake, though Prince Harry and Meghan Markle opted for a non-traditional cake.

American tradition

Americans have been making and sending fruitcakes to relatives and friends for generations. With the advent of modern refrigerators, it is no longer the luxury item it once was. The cakes would easily last a year, though sometimes the result would be eating a sweet cake that was hard as a rock.

My parents even made fruitcakes for family members one year. I remember them starting in late fall and soaking them with orange juice and rum. They were kept in the refrigerator to sit until ready to package for Christmas... and they molded horribly. I was in grade school at the time, so my memory of the exact circumstances may be wrong, but they did mold and were discarded.

Falling out of favor

The modern fruitcake changed when they became inexpensive industrialized desserts. Southern bakeries were able to mass produce the dessert, and they were sold en mass across the country. They filled a niche that was previously void - until the market became oversaturated. I think people received too many and quit eating them... and they dried up on shelves and became hard as a brick - suitable then only as doorstops.

There is a misconception that fruitcake tastes bad. This is not always the case. I personally have enjoyed some rather good ones. I have also eaten the worst fruitcake in my life, when my in-laws helped my first wife make a wedding fruitcake.

The ingredient quality has much to do with the taste and quality, as it does in many things. A cake filled with quality dried fruits, nuts, and quality brandy will provide a quality dessert that would please most anyone. You need not indulge in the candied fruits and poor quality ingredients. If you do, there are much better uses for the brandy.

Fruitcake fell out of favor because the quality of the ingredients and and love gone into making them eroded over time, in my humble opinion. Try a quality fruitcake, or make one yourself. It may change your mind.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN
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