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A Look at the Fruitcake: A Divisive Holiday Treat

Tue, Dec 20, 2016 at 6:41PM

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When it comes to holiday treats, there are few dishes quite as divisive as the fruitcake.

The rich, fruit-filled cake (that, depending on the chef, can be soaked in spirits, too) was once seen as a wholesome staple of the holiday dinner table—now, however, audiences are divided between longtime fans and equally passionate critics.

What happened along the way that made fruitcake the divisive dish it is today? In today’s blog, we aim to find out!

A holiday tradition centuries in the making

While it may be a modern pastime to joke about fruitcake, the dessert itself is nothing new—in fact, even the ancient Romans enjoyed a slice here and there! The earliest recipe found called for barley, pine nuts, raisins and pomegranate seeds—later on, it got a bit more sophisticated, and Middle Ages chefs added spices and preserved fruits to give their cakes more flavor.

As the centuries progressed, the availability of sugar in the New World allowed for fruitcakes to include more candied fruits—at a better price, too. The rich nature of the fruitcake lent itself to big holiday feasts, which is probably why it’s so associated with the season today.

Where it went wrong

It’s impossible to say when fruitcake first gained its divisive reputation, but there definitely was a shift from universal enjoyment to frequent criticism sometime in the 20th century. “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson once quipped that the same fruitcake was passed from family to family throughout the world—hinting that people simply recycled the cakes they were given. This might have added to the idea that fruitcakes were less than appealing. In 2003, Carson’s successor on the show, Jay Leno, tasted a piece of a then-125-year-old fruitcake. While it’s true that fruitcakes can last remarkably long (thanks to the presence of dried fruit and, in this case, alcohol), seeing such an ancient cake featured on live television probably didn’t do much to help fruitcake’s reputation.

Today’s fruitcakes

Today, people are divided. Some would not let a holiday go by without indulging in a delicious homemade fruitcake, while others scoff at the idea. With so many mass-produced options available, however, there may be a chance for newcomers to the dish to find one they really like. Similar variations on the fruitcake, like Italy’s Panettone, have gained traction in supermarkets here and abroad—so we’ll just have to wait and see if fruitcakes and similar dishes make a comeback any time soon!

When it comes to fruitcake, what’s your verdict—is it a delicious dish when made right, or just not worth the trouble? Let us know below!


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