Fruitcake Is the Most Reviled Holiday Confection in History for Good Reason

Fruitcake is gross, and ugly, and nobody likes it. It's the brunt of late night television jokes and finds itself as a punchline in songs. And yet, fruitcake endures as a staple in the American Christmas culinary tradition. What gives?

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Dec 18 2014, 6:29pm

Illustration by James Braithwaite

I have a slightly troubled relationship with holiday eating. Gustatory excess, I have no problem with—and do not confine to holidays. My gripe is more with the foods we elect to eat during the holidays which, normally, we would not. We have little practice and skill in preparing them, and if we apply the normal barometers of quality—like taste, texture, appearance—they probably don't rate that high on a full list of a year's food experiences. For example, turkey. It is often bland and ill-prepared. Pecan pie is hardly worth the calories. I do the turkey in the smoker and eat sugary pies only when a member of my family makes them. I don't want to hurt any feelings. And I've probably had too much to drink by the time the dessert's coming out, so I would likely eat anything that's placed in front of me.

But I draw the line at fruitcake.

Fruitcake has to be the most-reviled of all holiday foods. Deservedly so. There's simply no defending it—at least, as a foodstuff. I realize that I'm lobbing at a soft target here. Fruitcake is gross, and ugly, and nobody likes it. When a fruitcake is baked to perfection, you'll find that, at its most elegant, it starts to assume the aspect of a slightly Medieval, weeping, tumescent loaf. And yet, fruitcake endures as a staple of our American Christmas culinary tradition. Fruitcake sales (there are several mail-order options, so we are able to report on this particular market), it has been recently reported, continue apace. This can't reflect a proportional statistic for fruitcake consumption, which, at least anecdotally speaking, is basically nil.

When a fruitcake is baked to perfection, you'll find that, at its most elegant, it starts to assume the aspect of a slightly Medieval, weeping, tumescent loaf.

I'm not saying there isn't somebody who eats it. I'm sure there is. I doubt with much enjoyment! But the point is that it doesn't matter that we don't like to eat it. Somewhere along the way, we gave fruitcake a pass. The very word "fruitcake" has become an epithet in American vernacular English, solidifying its ethereal permanence in our culture, year-round. Of course, we'd rather be called a fruitcake than eat one.

This wasn't always the case. Time was, fruitcakes were still fruitcakes, and were prepared in American kitchens on the regular. For example, in the winter of 1878, a farmer's wife named Fidelia Bates baked a holiday fruitcake in her farmhouse scullery. She doused the sugary confection with spirits and set it in the cupboard to age. Shortly thereafter, she died. Her family kept the fruitcake, uneaten, as a memorial to Fidelia, and in 2003, the cake made an appearances on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. It was brought there by Morgan Ford, 83—Fidelia's great-grandson. The years had been kind to the fruitcake, which, other than looking somewhat nibbled-at, could have passed for a contemporary cake. It was celebrating its 125th year on this crazy planet. Upon sampling it, Leno proclaimed that it needed "more time."

The very word "fruitcake" has become an epithet in American vernacular English, solidifying its ethereal permanence in our culture, year-round.

The story of Fidelia's cake goes to the heart of our relationship with fruitcake. The quaintness of something so old-fashioned and also gustatorily repellent has morphed into a victimless joke. Through a gradual metamorphosis, fruitcake has transcended its status as a foodstuff and become fully symbolic. Over time, instead of eliminating it entirely from our diet, we've adapted to what we've found to be fruitcake's most-resilient quality: it makes for a good punchline. This transition has played out on television over the years. Fruitcake has been mocked on late-night TV (not just Leno—Carson called it, "the worst gift … There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."); it's the brunt of a joke on the 1988 Christmas special from Pee-Wee's Playhouse (people keep giving Pee Wee fruitcakes, which he abhors, until he has enough to construct a new wing for the playhouse with them); and it's the subject of a truly bizarre Jimmy Buffett song and music video. In all these cases, fruitcake is presented as a punchline, rather than a dessert course. Which is how we like it.

This way, we can have our fruitcake—and not eat it too.

I think we like to not like it, which is why we trot it out each Christmas. And there is perhaps something more nuanced here as fruitcake relates to Christmas. Each year of my childhood, on Christmas Eve, a package would appear on our doorstep in the early morning. Inside it was a fruitcake—a holiday gift from our family friends—and a little card printed with a short, moralizing story. I can't remember how it went exactly, but here's a guess: long ago, somebody related to this family somehow had become destitute, and was down-and-out, lonely and feeling bereft as Christmas approached. Somebody else happened to give this person a fruitcake as a gift, and this made the destitute party's Christmas—it was all he had to eat, or something like that. So now, this family gives fruitcakes to their good friends each Christmas in the spirit of giving and selflessness and this treasured piece of family lore.

This family was expressing something so earnest, old-fashioned, and aspirational with their gift. Almost a prelapsarian notion of fruitcake. Fruitcake was not just fruitcake for them—but it wasn't a punchline, either. It was a vessel for the Christmas Spirit itself. As ugly and unappetizing as it was as a comestible, fruitcake expressed something beautiful for them, and they took the time and effort each year to share that with their friends and keep that spirit alive. It nearly makes my heart burst to think of it. And was the fruitcake itself more delicious for it?

I couldn't say. I can't remember that we ever ate a bite of it.