My original plan for today was to write about traditional Christmas foods from various countries. As often happens, a little research showed me that my original idea wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it was, in this case because there are simply too many traditional holiday foods. For any country there is never just one traditional food that everybody eats only at Christmas.

This weekend I spoke with my Aunt Nancy, my dad’s sister, and she mentioned that my grandmother made fruitcake every year, starting the process in late November so that it would be ready in time for Christmas. We didn’t live near my grandparents and I was very young the last time we spent Christmas with them, so I don’t remember her fruitcake. I called my dad, and while he didn’t remember his mom making it, he remembered eating it, and he still loves a good fruitcake.

Although fruitcakes have a long history, they are often ridiculed in the U.S., and I wanted to learn more about fruitcake before it became a punch line. The first place I went was mentioned in my post about Food History Research, a website created by a reference librarian called The Food Timeline. Once I had the basics, I could expand my search.

There is evidence that the Romans made a precursor to the modern energy bar, a sweetened substance made of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins in a mash of barley. This didn’t spoil, required no preparation, was packed with calories and could be carried and eaten by soldiers. From these humble beginnings the fruitcake has evolved.

A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack
A slice of American fruitcake. Photo courtesy of Stu Spivack

During the Middle Ages dried and candied fruit became more widely available. These methods preserved the fruit so that it was edible longer and therefore could be shipped farther. Now that people had the fruit, they could add them to breads and cakes. In England during the Victorian era, fruitcake was an important accompaniment at tea.

It continued to evolve as the basic fruitcake made its way to other cultures and as a variety of fruits and nuts and other ingredients were added. It’s a simple history, but it brings up other questions.

Why is fruitcake a Christmas tradition? One theory is that during the Middle Ages ingredients like fruit were expensive and considered special fare, and therefore were made only on special occasions. There is also a theory that in England, slices of fruitcake were given as treats to poor carolers at Christmas.

How does fruitcake last so long without spoiling? Apparently sugar and alcohol are preservatives. Sugar became more widely available in the 16th century and it not only made fruit last longer, but intensified the color and the flavor of the fruit. I don’t know at what point in history alcohol was added to the process by some fruitcake creators, but this is also a preservative and adds to the shelf life. Alcohol also neutralizes the sweetness from all the sugar. These natural preservatives are required because fruitcakes are not meant to be eaten right after they are created. The fruit releases tannin over time and deepens the flavor, so it’s best to let them sit for about a month before eating.

I wonder how much trial and error was involved in reaching these conclusions.

How long does a fruitcake last? Although not scientifically proven, there are stories of an existing fruitcake made in the late 18th century. A family in Michigan has a fruitcake they claim was made in 1878. I also read that fruitcakes last for 26 years, but that seems a rather arbitrary determination. Although it may not spoil or become moldy after hundreds of years, that doesn’t mean I would want to eat it.

And finally, when did the jokes start? Fruitcakes started being mass produced rather than homemade in the early 20th century. It’s possible some of the jokes started then. With most foods, people want them prepared a certain way. It may be that the mass produced fruitcakes just weren’t the same as the family recipe. It was in the 1930s that people started referring to those they deemed crazy as “fruitcakes”. And it was in the 1980s that Johnny Carson joked that there was only one fruitcake in existence, being constantly re-gifted.

Ultimately, the jokes don’t seem to bother those who love fruitcake. Since I started this little bit of research I’ve spoken with several people who love fruitcake of all types, which leads to the most important thing I’ve learned. There seems to be an endless variety of fruitcakes from light to dark, fruity to cakey, with alcohol or without, and including additions never dreamed of in the Middle Ages. With that kind of variety, it makes sense that everyone should be able to find one they like. At the website for The Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake you can find recipes, FAQs and links. And don’t forget National Fruitcake Day on December 27th.

So what do you think? Are you a fruitcake fan? If so, is it the taste or is it the memories evoked and tradition that keep you coming back for more?