In Defense of the Humble Fruitcake
People love to hate on this classic holiday dish, but when it’s well-made there’s nothing more festive.
A few months back, explorers (re-explorers?) in Antarctica found, at a former camp site of pioneer Robert Falcon Scott, a 106-year old fruitcake that was determined to be “almost edible.”
And that’s not the oldest fruitcake on record, either. Well-preserved specimens of the humble hunks of bread, rum, and sugared fruit, have been passed down, kicked around, and joked about at holiday gatherings for generations.
Had I been part of Scott’s party, however, it never would have lasted. I’d have scarfed it down long before it got so old.
I love fruitcake—homemade fruitcake, anyway. I love its rummy, sugary smell, especially when it’s been warmed back up a little. I love the springy, nutty flavor, and the way the dried and candied fruit works like little bursts of flavor.
When I was a kid, my aunt used to put fruitcake out on the table every Christmas. She made it using a ring mold pan, and always included a generous helping of pecans, and both the red and green maraschino cherries—I never saw the green ones anywhere else but inside that fruitcake. They looked so strange, but they tasted delicious.
When I got a little older, I learned to eat my fruitcake with a small cup of hot, black coffee. The bitterness of the drink complements the sweetness and the alcohol of the cake. There’s really nothing better.
One year, as a young adult away from home for Christmas and feeling a little lonely, I went to the store and bought myself some fruitcake to eat, to try to get a little of that holiday spirit.
As soon as I bit into it, I realized immediately why fruitcakes are so maligned: it was awful. Instead of a bready, rummy, fruity goodness, I had a mouthful of sticky, oversweet crumbly goo. The whole thing tasted like it had been soaked in corn syrup. It was basically flavorless.
It was the first time in my life that I put a plate of fruitcake into the garbage.
The next year I begged my aunt for her recipe. So this year, when you’re perusing the sweets table at your next family gathering or holiday party, don’t pass right by the fruitcake, shaking your head. Find out, first, where it came from. If it was made in someone’s oven, put a small sliver on your plate. Or, better yet, make one yourself. You won’t regret it.