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From My Window

Issue Date: December 7, 2016

Fruit Cake - Is It Edible?

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

Already saw my first "fruit cake" joke of the season so I did a little digging to understand this food item, probably closer associated to Christmas than anything else you can eat other than candy canes.

Fruit cakes, in general, are dense dark cakes featuring either candied fruit, or dried fruit, and nuts. Many of them are soaked in rum or have other alcohol as part of their recipe. (One wag said "it's hard to believe I don't like anything that involves a lot of butter and rum.") As I suspected, this is a very old food item, with records going back to at least the 14th century in England, but apparently its roots lie in ancient Rome. Thinking about these roots, it's pretty clear why a baked item from those times would involve alcohol " it's a powerful preservative, and dousing the finished cake with rum would prevent it from getting moldy. (A historical example of this was the death in battle of England's very famous Lord Nelson. In order that he could be returned to his beloved England for burial, his ship's crew put the body in a wooden barrel and filled it with brandy, ensuring the body would be in good condition after a long sea voyage. That's kind of a sobering thought now, isn't it?)

And since there was no refrigeration in Europe or anywhere else when these early fruit cakes were made, the "fruit" had to be preserved as well, with Christmas not a time when fresh fruit would have been available. So either dried fruit, or candied fruit was necessary. Now, candied fruit is something I just can't tolerate " it's fruit preserved by successive baths in sugar water, which slowly dehydrates the fruit while coating it with sugar, again, to prevent the growth of microbes. This fruit is generally composed of pineapple, citrus peel, raisins and those hideous dyed green and red Maraschino cherries. I call the garish red and green cherries "chemical cherries." There is nothing fruit-like about this stuff, it's like they baked in a bunch of gummy bears.

(Okay, I'll show my hand here. Not a fruit cake fan, at all.)

Finally, a lot of nuts, typically pecans but sometimes walnuts. There is an expression "nutty as a fruit cake." I think you have to be nutty as a fruit cake to eat something like this when there are so many holiday food specialties available at Christmas time.

There are written records of mail-order fruit cakes from 1913, and of course they are ubiquitous at this time of year " with mail order prices ranging from around $20 well upwards of $40 plus shipping. To me, it is the kind of thing you order for someone out of desperation, since they already have everything they could possibly want or need, and you are totally out of gift ideas. Or something a company sends out to customers, because they have to buy for 30 different people who are hard to please with one single item. Fruit cake does, at least, have tradition going for it.

I have, at various times, been talked into sampling different fruit cakes, and I have yet to be impressed. I'm not much of a cake person to begin with, and all of it tastes pretty much the same to me. (I don't like Gummi Bears, either.) Perhaps that is why there are so many urban legends about families sending the same unopened fruit cake tin back and forth for the holiday for years. Or, perhaps, your family does this and it's not an urban legend at all. Maybe you know someone with a 20-year old fruit cake, with a list of names and years recording its travels between various family members. After all, no worries it will get moldy!

I did see a really interesting event involving fruit cake which is held after the holiday every year in Monitor Springs, Colorado. They hold a "fruit cake toss," and encourage people to utilize "recycled" fruit cakes for their tosses, assuming, I guess, that is a cake that has already been gifted. Now that sounds like a fun event, and perhaps some extremely hungry animals then clean up the resulting mess. Best use I have heard of yet for fruit cake.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: . Please do not send fruit cakes.


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