It’s hard to imagine the holiday season without a home full of sweets. Pumpkin pies, sugar cookies cut into the shapes of snowflakes, gingerbread men, fudge and peppermint bark are all an integral part of Christmas and make great homemade gifts for the loved ones in your life. However, there is one dessert that has a terrible reputation: the fruitcake. But how did hating on fruitcake become a national pastime?
We’ve all heard the gags: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” Johnny Carson famously quipped on “The Tonight Show,” for example. While the first-ever joke about fruitcake is hard to pin down, according to Michael Krondl, food historian and author of “Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert,” this traditional dessert is a punchline because over the years the things that traditionally made it delicious — hard-to-find dried fruits and plenty of alcohol — have been removed, leaving a dry, faux confection that is literally hard to swallow.
“One thing that may have ruined fruitcake in America is that the traditional fruitcake in the U.K. is quite boozy,” Krondl told The Daily Meal via phone. “The United States have this prohibitionist streak, so none of these fruitcakes would have any booze in them. You take the booze out of the fruitcake, and it’s no good. It’s way too dry. The booze is integral to keeping the moisture in. You take the booze out, you replace the good fruit with this mixture — you’ve now lost the two essential elements to making a fruitcake good.”
While fruitcakes today are dry and artificial tasting, it didn’t used to be this way. According to Krondl, one of the oldest extant dessert recipes is for a Babylonian food that resembles a fruitcake. Sugar was expensive and hard to find, so Middle Eastern bakers would use dried figs and dates to sweeten their breads and cakes.
Their stability and long shelf life gave fruitcakes the special designation of being the dessert of special occasions. Weddings, election nights and, of course, the holidays were celebrated with these holdovers from centuries ago. Thank old-fashioned family recipes and how easy it is to stack a dense cake, perfect for feeding a crowd.
“Tradition holds on for certain rituals more so than it does for others. It certainly holds on in things like weddings. Christmas, in particular, is one of those times where people hold on to older recipes,” Krondl said. “So, you’re going to have people making gingerbread, a holdover from the Middle Ages where ginger was expensive and you have these fancy molded things. These things stick around even though the original rationale for them was that ginger and spices were indulgences; we’re still going through the motions of having gingerbread for Christmas.”
The things that once made fruitcake a luxury — dried fruits, spices and a dense bread-like dough — are not only out of fashion with modern tastes, they are in fact the same things that now make it unpalatable. Thank the ease of shipping these confections across the country — which also is how we get to fruitcakes being a late-night punchline.
“Fruitcake is amenable to shipping. It was designed to last. It’s tough. It’s not fragile. It was designed to ship well. The quality when you’re mass manufacturing goes down, as well,” Krondl explained. “So, it becomes rather miserable. Thus, the idea that the same fruitcake is getting passed around, passed around and passed around — it does taste that way.”
Despite its rich history, the fruitcake is an American joke today, thanks in large part because modern recipes just aren’t very tasty. And whether you spend your Christmas eating fruitcake or laughing at fruitcake, there’s no denying this dessert is one of those classic holiday traditions.