What is a fruit cake? A look at history.


Jeffrey Miller is an associate professor of hospitality management at Colorado State University. This story was originally featured on The conversation.

Nothing says Christmas like a fruit cake or, at the very least, a fruit cake joke.

A joke attributed to the elder Tonight show Host Johnny Carson says that “there is only one fruitcake in the whole world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

It has certainly earned its reputation for longevity.

Two friends from Iowa have been trading the same fruit cake since the late 1950s. The fruit cake left in Antarctica by explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910 is even older. But the honor of the oldest known fruit cake goes to the one that was baked in 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes was President of the United States.

The amazing thing about these old fruit cakes is that people have tasted and experienced them which means they are still edible after all these years. The trio of sugar, low water ingredients, and some high strength spirits make fruit cakes one of the most sustainable foods in the world.

The original energy bar

Fruit cake is an ancient delicacy, with the oldest versions being a kind of energy bar made by the Romans to support their soldiers in battle. The Roman fruit cake was a mash of barley, honey, wine, and dried fruits, often pomegranate seeds.

What you might recognize as a modern-style fruit cake – a chewy sourdough dessert sprinkled with fruit and nuts – was probably first baked in early Middle Ages in Europe. Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were symbols of culinary sophistication, and these sweet spices began to appear alongside fruit in many savory dishes, especially breads, but also main dishes.

In no time, most kitchens had some sort of bread or fruit cake which was the earliest version of modern fruit cake.

Fruit cakes are different in Europe than in America. European fruit cakes are more like medieval fruit bread than versions made in Britain and the United States. The two most common styles of fruit cakes in Europe are stollen and panettone.

The British and American versions look a lot more like cakes. For outsized extravaganza, the honors have to go to a British version that tops a rich fruit cake with a layer of marzipan frosting.

Panettone, an Italian specialty sometimes baked with pieces of candied orange, is a local variation of fruit cake. Photo submission

Sweeten the pot

Fruit cakes arrived in America with European settlers, and the rising tide of emigration from Britain to New England closely mirrored an influx of cheap sugar from the Caribbean.

Sugar was the key to preserving fruit for use through the seasons. One of the preferred methods of preserving fruit was to “candy” it. Candied fruits, sometimes called candied fruits, are fruits cut into small pieces, boiled in sugar syrup, mixed with granulated sugar and left to dry.

Thanks to this technique, the settlers were able to preserve the fruits of the summer harvest for use in their Christmas confections, and fruit cakes became one of the most popular seasonal desserts.

A dessert that lasts

Fruit cakes were also popular because of their legendary shelf life, which in an era before mechanical refrigeration was extremely desirable.

Fruit cake lovers will tell you that the best fruit cakes are ripened – or “seasoned” in fruit cake parlance – for at least three months before they are cut. The seasoning not only improves the flavor of the fruit cake, but it makes it easier to slice.

Seasoning a fruit cake involves brushing your fruit cake periodically with your favorite distilled alcohol before wrapping it tightly and letting it sit in a cool, dark place for up to two months. The traditional spirit of choice is brandy, but rum is also popular. In the southern United States, where fruit cake is extremely popular, bourbon is preferred. A well-seasoned fruit cake will receive several alcohol baths during the ripening period.

At least part of the credit for the popularity of fruitcake in America should go to the United States Post.

The institution of free rural delivery in 1896 and the addition of the postal parcel service in 1913 caused an explosion in mail order food sales in America. Overnight, rare delicacies were just a mail order envelope to people anywhere who could afford them.

Considering the long shelf life and dense texture of the fruit cake, it was natural for a mail order food business. America’s two most famous fruit cake companies, Claxton’s of Claxton, Georgia, and Collin Street of Corsicana, Texas, got their start in the heyday of mail order food. In the early 1900s, America’s mailrooms were full of boxes of now-ubiquitous fruitcakes.

Until the 1950s, fruit cakes were an integral part of the American holiday tradition. A 1953 Los Angeles Times article called the fruit cake a “holiday must”, and in 1958 the Christian Science Monitor asked, “What could be a better gift than a fruit cake?” But in 1989, a Mastercard survey found fruit cake to be the least popular gift for 75% of those surveyed.

Hateers and disrespect aside, fruitcake is still a strong American tradition: the Serious Eats website reports that more than 2 million fruitcakes are still sold each year.

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