You know the jokes.
“There’s only one fruitcake in the world and people keep passing it around” was Johnny Carson’s take on the matter. David Letterman said “Airport screeners are now scanning holiday fruitcakes. Not even the scanners can tell what those little red things are.”
We could even go back to Phyllis Diller, but the gist is the same—fruitcakes are not edible; they are better suited as a doorstop, durable masonry or a museum curiosity. It is said that when Andrew Jackson’s artillery ran low on ammunition during the battle of New Orleans, his men began firing fruitcakes at the British, with devastating effect.
Still trying to find a citation for that.
But someone out there must crave fruitcake. A few years ago, after all, the corporate controller for Collin Street Bakery—an operation in Corsicana, Texas, famous for its fruitcake—was arrested for embezzling more than $16 million from the place.
That’s right, $16 million over a span of less than ten years, a pittance that hardly dented the bakery’s profits. Bosses didn’t even notice. Hell, Collin Street even purchased an organic pineapple plantation just so they wouldn’t run out and have to resort to mango—and this while they were being ripped off by an employee.
That’s a lot of fruitcake. Clearly there’s more than one out there.
Why then do so few step forward when the shout “who wants fruitcake” goes out? Why has that never actually been shouted? Why is the centuries-old recipe so reviled?
“It’s the combination of fruit—weird fruit, candied fruit,” observes Susan Carter, owner of The Perfect Crumb, a bakery on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey. “Need I say more?”
Ah, yes. The fruit.
When most people think of fruitcake, they think of a brick studded with stale pecans and candied bits with an unearthly, neon glow. There are yellows, reds and greens that appear to be squeezed from a well-used highlighting marker and tasting of...just what fruit is day-glo green, anyway?
These truly inedible blocks dominate grocery shelves and mail-order advertising. Apart from the vivid colors, they are just tacky and commercial. And over the past 80 years, they managed to turn even those who should appreciate an occasional fruitcake against the treat.
“I like fruit and I love cake—should be a winner,” says Weekly ad exec Tracy Vasquez. “It’s an oxymoron of sorts, a false positive.”
For some reason other traditional cakes dotted with fruit do not cause the same revulsion. Parker-Lusseau Pastries & Cafe in old Monterey offers stollen, a German favorite filled with nuts, spices and fruit, which can include the candied variety. Sound familiar? They also serve brioche with candied citrus for the holidays. No problem. People love them.
England’s Christmas pudding, which also masquerades under “figgy pudding” or “plum pudding,” was so revered that Dickens builds in a scene around pudding at the Cratchit household. And carolers still demand figgy pudding as a return for wishing people a merry Christmas.
Actually it’s more of a threat than a demand. Remember?
We won't go 'til we get some
We won't go 'til we get some
We won't go until we get some
So bring it out here!
Geez! Merry f-ing Christmas indeed.
But Carter and other bakeries more often resist piecing together fruitcake as we know it. “It’s an older generation cake,” she says. “I don’t know many younger generation people who like them.”
By “older” she means way older. Even the crew of Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, everbody’s favorite also-ran Buzz Aldrin and that other guy—left a fruitcake packed by NASA behind on their spacecraft.
And a Colorado town made news when it declared an annual Fruitcake Toss Day, where townsfolk gathered to dispense of untouched cakes, launching them by catapult—which suggests that Old Hickory was not the first to use the weighty dessert as a tactical weapon.
The Fruitcake Toss Day came about because so many people donated unwanted fruitcakes—they are, after all, non-perishable items reputed to survive for decades, if not centuries and still be just as appealing—the shelters needed some way to get rid of the things.
The price to participate? Bring another food item, something the disadvantaged would actually eat.
Yet there are those who insist that fruitcakes can be enjoyed. Alton Brown said as much in an episode of his Good Eats series. So did Susan Purdy, who wrote the book A Piece of Cake (clever). “The Fruitcake Lady”—Marie Rudisill—chastised Johnny Carson for his dismissive comments and claimed fruitcakes should be crowned the “queen of cakes.”
Oh—and Truman Capote loved them enough to make fruitcake the focus of his short story “A Christmas Memory.”
Fruitcake shards were not the weapon of choice in In Cold Blood. I checked that one.
These fans of fruitcake insist that good ingredients make for a good finished product. Collin Street Bakery’s popular version includes pecans shelled on site, the organic pineapple and papaya they farm in Costa Rica, ripe cherries, clover honey and golden raisins. Yeah, they plant a couple of apocalyptic green wedges on top, but these are decorations you can easily flick off—although it may be best to use a utensil to avoid any nuclear contamination from skin contact.
New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur is another favorite. And they really, really do it right.
“We began making the cakes 45 years ago, which included hand-dipping them in brandy here at the hermitage,” says New Camaldoli’s commercial operations manager, Rich Veum. “They are still made by hand by our baker, and each cake is still individually hand-dipped in brandy.”
It seems that sugar and alcohol—particularly the alcohol—ensure a fruitcake remains fresh and moist for a year or longer. Some people wrap the cake in booze-soaked linens before storing it away. And while New Camaldoli prefers brandy, rum, whiskey, port or sherry are also considered traditional.
No—Tito’s won’t do on this occasion.
And even in Capote’s version, a good fruitcake requires good ingredients: Both pecans and walnuts, raisins, cherries, pineapple slices, ginger, vanilla and such. Liquor was illegal in Capote’s neighborhood—it’s a flashback to his youth in the Deep South—so they resort to bootleg booze.
The bootlegger famously says “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” And he’s right, but without it, fruitcake would just be a doorstop or a lethal battlefield weapon.
As Kevin Jewell, who works below the Weekly’s opulent newsroom in the production dungeon, rarely exposed to the light of day, reveres the fruitcake made at home by his sister-in-law. Why?
“Because it is dunked in rum, wrapped in rum-soaked cheesecloth.”
So in answer to this week’s Burning Question, people despise fruitcake because the overwhelming majority of cakes they encounter are produced cheaply, with disturbing fruit perhaps cut from old Super Balls and presented without a soaking in alcohol.
That’s it—distilled spirits (and a few good ingredients) make everything better.
But if you still can’t stomach the thought, there’s always carrot cake—the top holiday choice at The Perfect Crumb.
“Carrot cake is off the charts,” Carter says.