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The Invincible Fruitcake: The Gift We Love to Hate

The British and other cultures love fruitcakes. But Americans? Not so much. In the U.S., it’s a ridiculed dessert, and the word itself is synonymous for a person who is, well, a fruitcake. Or nutty as one. The much-maligned confection has long been the butt of jokes involving creative repurposing as doorstops, bricks, a base for flower arrangements, and holding down tents among others. More kindhearted people put them out for the birds and squirrels to eat.

But we digress. And to be fair, fruitcakes have a long and honorable history. In ancient Egypt, a primitive forerunner to fruitcake was considered an essential food for the afterlife and was placed in many tombs, inasmuch as it lasted forever and had no use-by date.

Fruitcakes became more common in Roman times when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and possibly fermented barley mash were mixed together. Prized for their sturdiness and long life, Roman soldiers supposedly took them into battle for sustenance. In the Middle Ages, when preserved fruit, spices and honey were added to the mix, they became popular with the crusaders, who carried them in their saddlebags on the road to the Holy Land.

By the 16th century, when sugar became a cheap commodity and preservative in the American Colonies, fruitcakes were more accessible and affordable. As time marched on, additional ingredients resulted in the modern American fruitcake’s herculean weight. No, really! According to Harper’s Index, the average fruitcake has a 1:1 density ratio with mahogany.

It’s unclear why the fruitcake became associated with the holidays. Historians think it came from the British who used to give slices of cake to the poor women who sang Christmas carols in the street during the late 1700s. The Victorians loved fruitcakes and were the ones to first add alcohol. But Queen Victoria supposedly waited a year to eat her birthday fruitcake, “to show restraint.” Or, perhaps, to put it off as long as possible.

In the early 18th century, fruitcakes, then called plum cakes, were considered “sinfully rich” and were banned throughout Europe. Laws were even passed limiting their use, although they were eventually repealed and fruitcake became the must-have dessert.

About the cake’s infamous lifespan, the owner of America’s well-known Claxton Fruitcakes in Claxton, Georgia, says, “If stored in the refrigerator, they’re good pretty much indefinitely.” That’s without the addition of spirits. But soak them with enough alcohol, also known as “feeding the cake,” and they can last into antiquity.
With all due respect to fruitcakes in general, not all are created in the image of those mass-produced creations that show up in grocery stores and malls every year and end up under your tree. But in case you get one, what to do with it? Well, there’s always the Manitou fruitcake toss.

Since 1995, our own West Side neighbor has hosted its nationally famous Great Fruitcake Toss on the second Saturday in January. It was begun by a former Manitou Chamber of Commerce director who thought throwing them would be more fun than eating them. The event has turned into a mega spectacle that’s entertaining if not bizarre. The remnants of the thrown cakes are wrapped back together and frozen, and you can rent them in next year’s toss.