Why Fruitcake

by : J Gardener

A look of horror covered the five-year-old's face, as he blared "Eeeewwww!", backing away, fearfully. "Honey", his embarrassed mother chided, "That's not nice." "What is it!?", the terrified youngster cried. "It's my fruitcake", the hostess of the Christmas party muttered, her forced smile barely hiding her displeasure, as she pulled the offered slice away. Needless to say, it was several years, before the offending child's family was invited back to the boss's annual soiree.

Of all the foods traditionally carted out during the holiday season, the fruitcake is probably the most mysterious and misunderstood. Candy canes, gingerbread, turkey, and ham all make a certain sense-even eggnog has its seasonal logic-but the fruitcake, this brown, twelve-pound pile of cooked-together leftovers weighing down the center of the table (which, legend has it, will still be fresh a hundred years from now) always seems to confuse and bemuse you, with its sheer oddity.

And, though you always avoid it, at first, the politeness of such gatherings demands that you eventually taste it. The funny thing is, when you finish that first slice, you invariably find yourself back at the table for seconds. Maybe even thirds. There's just something about it. It's like a funhouse for the taste-buds, a different experience with every bite. Yet, when you leave the party, you swear you'll never touch fruitcake again-ever.

Admit it. You've always wondered-what kind of demented cook ever concocted such a confection? Like most of our traditional holiday foods, fruitcake has its origins in ancient times. According to whatscookingamerica.net, the earliest reference to fruitcake dates back to ancient Rome, describing a recipe that included pomegranate seeds, raisins, and nuts, baked with a barley mash.

During the Crusades, spices from the Far East were added, along with honey and dried fruits. Fruitcake was a staple among those who took long journeys-soldiers, hunters, and traders-as it remained edible for extended periods. In the 1400's, fruitcake became a popular treat in Britain, as the spices and dried fruits became available from the Mediterranian, and prices dropped.

By the 1700's, in Europe, fruitcake was associated with end-of-year rituals, and recipes became localized. Ceremonial cakes were baked, filled with a variety of local crops, as a way of celebrating the year's good fortune. The cakes were saved over the winter and then eaten in the spring, just before planting new crops, in the symbolic hope of another successful harvest.

It's assumed that some recipes began to include liquor, as an extra preservative. Urban legends abound, about fruticakes passed down through families, from generation to generation, lasting a hundred years or more, but there seems to be no hard evidence to back up such claims. Today, of course, the addition of spirits to recipes is more for flavor than preservation.

It may be the oddest-looking food served during the holiday season, but fruitcake has a long a noble history. And it's OK if your five-year-old is frightened by the sight of it. That just leaves more for you. And once you've had that first pieceā€¦