The Corner

Culture

America’s Christmas Punchline That Once Was Fit for a Queen

Fruit-topped cupcakes at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 16, 2009. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

The late, great Johnny Carson once remarked on a 1989 episode of The Tonight Show that “the worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

Perhaps he was being hyperbolic, but consider it: the ugly stepchild of American Christmas desserts, and it’s still curiously resurrected every year, even in the shadow of pre-made Pillsbury sugar-cookie dough in aluminum tubes that would likely be chosen by most American households over the saccharine and blunt-force-trauma-capable density of a fruitcake. Have you ever seen two fruitcakes in the same room as each other? I haven’t. I have seen grocery stores oh-so-subtly suggest that someone out there is baking a fruitcake, by placing the vividly colored glacé berries next to the candied orange peel next to the eight-ounce bags of walnuts and pecans.

Maybe someone with a more conspiratorial worldview than I could conclude that it’s a façade — that Carson’s theory is true and there’s one revolving fruitcake. Because of the cake’s Rembrandt-esque hues and the lack of malleability compared to the sponginess of other desserts, it could be from the Dickens era, and one could never tell.

Or maybe there are some stewards of Christmas tradition whose palettes haven’t changed with the evolving food zeitgeist and who are obstinately casting pearls before swine. Fruitcake is misunderstood, destined to fulfill its de facto role in most American households as a nutmeg-scented air freshener for the trashcan it’ll find itself in, or maybe it’ll serve its time on the gallows of other rejected Christmas gifts that can be easily repackaged for last-minute-gathering invitations. In Manitou Springs, Col., there’s even an annual fruitcake toss where the loaves are catapulted.

But these fates are unjust. Could you imagine someone throwing out or gift-recycling (or catapulting) a cake that, if made properly and according to recipe, was toiled over, created with the thoughtfulness and patience required to wait more than a month for the ingredients to rest and mellow? That was checked up on every couple weeks within the eight-week recommended aging period to be carefully brushed with brandy or rum? Sacré bleu!

The road to fruitcake’s fall from grace is paved with mass production. Until the 20th century, fruitcake was a delicacy served at any hoity-toity gathering, and a Victorian tea always included one; Queen Victoria would even wait a year until eating a fruitcake that she had been given because it displayed restraint and moderation. Now that factories could easily produce an exponential number of cakes that could also be mailed, folks began receiving last-minute grocery-store purchases with barcodes stuck on, likely picked off of a stack of other holiday-themed desserts conveniently aggregated after being shipped in from a factory a few towns (or states) away. They’re made with the candied cherries and lemon peel that, if you’re lucky and are paying a couple bucks extra, have been macerated in brandy, and that have likely earned fruitcake its maligned reputation for their gooey texture. 

The fruitcake you’ve likely been receiving (and if you’re a contrarian or followed through on a dare, eating) is kind of like Franzia boxed wine: cheap, vaguely tasting like what it’s supposed to, made saccharine to hide the fact that there was no real fruit fermented, and the alcoholic flavor is more similar to that of a $12 handle of vodka you’d likely encounter in the punch at a college party (if you don’t encounter a box of Franzia itself).

The real thing shouldn’t look like a retro linoleum-marble floor when you cut into it, with its unnaturally bright pigmentation — it isn’t a brick of deceit; it should include real dried fruit instead of gelatinous store-bought candy, and nuts and a cup or two of brandy or rum, and then after the amalgam of spices and baking it, the fruitcake is tucked away for at least one month (and if you’re serving Queen Victoria, one year); enough time for the dried fruit to properly marinate in the booze and for the cake to mature. It requires a baker with restraint and patience. It also requires an appreciation for craft, time, and the flavors of nature’s produce in their wrinkled and leathery state with the punctuated taste that we’ve grown particularly adverse to — in our culinary generation, we are often also suffering time bankruptcy.

Americans especially have lost their affinity for pungency — chocolate commercials boast their products’ etherealism, the way it melts on your tongue; birthday cakes have switched from having icing that’s dense enough to fill potholes to a delicate dollop that could blow away with a gust of wind, and that is conservatively sweetened. Just like fashion, cuisines trend and our palettes adjust to what’s in vogue.

If you’re in the presence of a homemade fruitcake that was nursed to perfection, be the Christmas contrarian this year. Reclaim the reputation of a once-revered dessert — make the booze sacrificed unto it worth it. Prove Carson’s theory false, and maybe even make fruitcake great again.

Marlo Safi is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a former Collegiate Network fellow with National Review.

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