By: Wil Fulton
See the fruitcake. Note the violently colored red and green "fruit" and suspect nuts that top the thick dough. Observe the same pseudo-fruit scattered within, waiting like landmines. Consider its place in the zeitgeist of American food. Recall the ridicule. Feel the confectionary schadenfreude. Look at that gross, wrinkly, Christmas-themed brown bread that everyone loves to make fun of.
We all know what a fruitcake is, or at least we think we do. Culturally, it's a holiday punchline, a maligned icon, the unpalatable loaf on your Aunt Ruth's dessert table. It's the subject of a joke that somehow all of us have inherited and continue to repackage and deploy every Christmas.
The food has seen more cliches than kitchen tables for the better half of a century, but few people under 30, or at least the friends I asked, have even tried a fruitcake, much less hated the taste enough to inspire such seasonal vitriol. And none of them even have an Aunt Ruth.
How did we get here?
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment fruitcake became a parody, but most refer to a certain talk show as ground zero of its downfall. Johnny Carson famously quipped, "The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake... There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year." This singular joke devolved into a Tonight Show holiday tradition of ripping on fruitcake, year after year.
Fast-forward to 2000 and the annual mockery had birthed a celebrity. Marie "The Fruitcake Lady" Rudisill became a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, thanks to her saucy grandma candor delivered in a distinct Southern drawl, and her book Fruitcake, a blend of recipes and a memoir. She once made fruitcake with Jay Leno and Mel Gibson -- a decidedly low point for the pastry in an already less-than-great career.
But Carson's joke happened in the '60s, which means the fruitcake sentiment was already pervasive and universal enough to resonate with a national audience. I needed to dig deeper. I needed to sink my teeth into the fruitcake's mystique.
Before anything though, I needed to put my taste buds on the line and take an actual bite of the devil's loaf to see if my jokes all these years had been unfounded.
The raisins and "cherries" of the crumbling cake bounced around my mouth, the semi-sweet, pungent taste radiated to the back of my throat.
Conventional fruitcake really does suck.
The practical definition of a "fruitcake" isn't particularly nuanced. It's composed of a bread base, dried or candied fruit and/or nuts, and alcohol (a true fruitcake must contain alcohol). It can have myriad spices and flavorings, but as long as it's composed of those three essentials, it is a fruitcake. Shape -- whether it's a log, a bundt-cake situation, or something else entirely -- makes no difference.
Because fruitcake is so loosely defined, versions exist all over the world. For example, stollen, or even the Italian panettone. The American fruitcake bears little resemblance to its international counterparts. It was introduced to the Americas by way of Europe in the 16th century, but it wasn't until mail order fruitcakes became available in America in 1913 that it became the lazy man's go-to gift. For a modern fruitcake model, look to Colin Street Bakery's classic or the equally famous Claxton fruitcake. These pictures can be considered NSFW, if your workplace frowns upon dry heaving at your desk.
Virginia Glass -- self-schooled pastry purveyor and amateur fruitcake historian -- and NYU professor of food studies and author, Amy Bentley, believe that much of the resentment towards fruitcake stems from the disconnect of what fruitcake actually is, versus what Americans have come to believe it is. In their opinion, redemption will only happen if the dessert can be redefined. What we envision as fruitcake is a quickly assembled, cheaply constructed facsimile. Basing all your fruitcake hate on these assembly-line counterfeits is like saying you don't like roast beef because you aren't a fan of Arby's. This is the problem.
To find out the conclusion of the tale, and if the fruitcake really can make a comeback, get the full story at Thrillist.com!
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