The Nation's Pulse

Fruitcake

Why does it get a bad rap?

By 4.28.06

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It's a "standing head." That means a headline you can just let "stand," or stay set in type, because it gets used over and over again. "State Rep Arrested for DUI." "Newborn Discovered in Dumpster." "Man Rediscovers Gift Fruitcake From 1962."

The last story, dated April 18 by AP, tells how a man discovered a 40-year-old fruitcake in his mother's attic. "(Lance) Nesta's two aunts sent him the fruitcake in November, 1962, while he was stationed in Alaska with the Army... As best he can remember, he packed the cake with the rest of his belongings and shipped it home to Waukesha when he left the military a few years later...His mom had given him advance warning of the fruitcake back in 1962."

That's the fruitcake in the news. There is also the fruitcake as staple of seasonal comedy. Every Christmas, comedians tell "eternal fruitcake" jokes -- the idea being that fruitcakes are so awful, people recycle them as gifts over and over again till someone finally throws them away.

As Dave Barry puts it, "Fruitcakes make ideal gifts because the Postal Service has been unable to find a way to damage them."

The fruitcake continues to suffer in the age of cyberspace. Type "fruitcake jokes" into Google, and, among hundreds of other entries you find "Things to do with a fruitcake: Paint a few white and place them outside on the grass so people won't park on your lawn. Donate to the local airport for use as airliner wheel blocks." And so forth.

MY MOTHER MADE FRUITCAKES, and they were terrific. She used to mail one or two to me when I was away at college, and I always kept them, carefully wrapped up in a moist towel, to take a slice off now and then. My roommates and friends seemed to like it, too, except for the guy who said it was just too goyische even to taste.

I called Mom to ask her about the three recipes she used and where they came from. One started from a base of ground pork, one from double-strength brewed coffee, and one from applesauce. She did not, as I suspected she might, learn to cook them from her mother or from any family friend renowned as a cook.

"I just looked up the recipes myself," Mom said. "One came from a cookbook I got as a wedding present, the Tuckaback Circle of the Methodist Church in Sioux Falls." One of the others came from Fannie Farmer. As The Joy of Cooking reminds us, "Fruitcakes are fundamentally butter cakes (i.e., no different in basic form from ginger cake, spice cake, or pound cake) with just enough batter to bind the fruit."

The Joy of Cooking's recipe for Dark Fruitcake calls for the typical Christmassy spices of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, two and a half pounds of currants, a pound of brown sugar, and 15 eggs -- yes, fruitcakes are heavy; this recipe yield is described as "two...loaves, about 12 pounds."

Apple pies are heavy, too. Why do fruitcakes get a bad rap?

I don't think many people make them anymore, and maybe those that do aren't very good cooks. So the fruitcakes people receive as gifts at Christmas time are either poorly made at home or come from commercial suppliers. I haven't found a commercial fruitcake that I like, either. Fruitcakes belong, as well, to a class of foods that has fallen out of favor with the modern palate, including plum pudding and mince pie. On top of that, it's unlikely that most people nowadays take the trouble to keep the cakes as moist as they should be, veritably sweating. A dry fruitcake really ought to be remoistened. You might follow the Joy of Cooking instruction to "bury the liquor soaked cake in powdered sugar" for long storage.

MORE IMPORTANT, THE WHOLE GENEROUS SYMBOL of a fruitcake doesn't mean much these days. When my mother made her batch of fruitcakes as holiday gifts, she was doing the most she could afford to do for her relatives and friends. She and my Dad had literally no extra money through the first years of their married life.

"I remember we had to buy a bottle of milk," she told me once. "We counted out our pennies, and then we walked to the store. Your Dad found a quarter, so he could buy a pack of cigarettes."

We have long forgotten her generation and the generation before, the one that soldiered through the Great Depression. My grandmother remembered it all too well, and in her retirement years, when she got a Social Security pension of about $38 a month, she used to say, "I try and try to live on a dollar a day, and I just can't do it." As well, for all that time, you simply could not buy some things in the winter: citrus fruit, pineapple, bananas.

From this background arrived the fruitcake, the poor man's gift of the Magi. These traditional riches of eggs, fruit, and butter in a cake almost literally substituted for a king's gold. Heavy? Ageless? What else could it be?

I think briefly of making a batch, and then decide not to. My family wouldn't eat it, and I would be left preserving the cakes under port-soaked cloth, taking off a slice now and then through eternity.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.