I have long been amused by the jokes made at the expense of the holiday delicacy/travesty known as “fruitcake.” A seemingly universal culinary punchline on par with Spam, for the majority of my life, I was never tempted to taste fruitcake. Why would I? The gist of the main fruitcake gag (reportedly perpetuated by Johnny Carson) was that no one on the planet likes it, yet it is abundantly available and widely given as a gift, so a new fruitcake probably hasn’t been manufactured in the past 100 years. We as a society simply move them around, passing them on to relatives, who pass them on to friends, who pass them on to enemies, etc.
I had no reason to doubt the disgustingness of fruitcake, which resembles a dessert pimento loaf with green and red acne (16th-century bakers came up with fruitcake using fruit scraps left over from other baking). Great for a doorstop or maybe a weapon, but to eat? No thanks.
My perception of fruitcake shifted when I actually tried some.
Not that I instantly became a fruitcake fiend, but I did wonder how this innocuous spice cake got such a bad rap. Its reputation certainly preceded it.
Every few years I doubt myself and carve up a slice just to make sure my undying defense of the cake isn’t a nog-inspired delusion. Going into my recent supermarket quest, I also started to think maybe my feelings on the reputation of the treat might be fogged by hyperbole. Then a couple walked by the fruitcake display and the woman said, “Look, hon,” gesturing to the small array of offerings. Their young kids asked what they were looking at and before the parents could get “fruitcake” out of their mouths, all three children sang a chorus of “Ewwws!”
Fruitcake is a traditional dish in countries from Trinidad to Italy and recipes vary. Alcohol is used in some and functions as a strong preserve, like sugary formaldehyde. There is allegedly a fruitcake-as-family-heirloom that dates back to 1878, kept by a Michigan family and tasted by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in the early ’00s. That man will do anything to keep that job!
I grabbed three alcohol-free fruitcakes (most mass-produced ones are) that ran from $1.50-$9.99. All fruitcakes are not created equal (and the brands are all ones you’ve never heard of). The mix of spices in the cheapest loaf, along with the low-branch green and red fruits (I assumed they’re cherries), made for an almost medicinal aftertaste. The $3.50 version wasn’t much better — more “congealed,” moist and candy bar-like (with notes of stale raisin and nut), it still was a flavor I wanted out of my mouth immediately. They weren’t gag-reflex-inducing, but certainly tightroped that borderline between “bleh” and “meh.”
So the $9.99 fruitcake, if my memories are correct, had to be delicious, right? While it didn’t make me squeal with yummy delight, it was far from repulsive. The cherries were fresher, you could actually pinpoint the various dried fruits (I think this one had pineapple), there were oodles of candied pecans and the cake itself seemed less chemically preserved. Still, it was pretty gross. Not 200-year-old running joke gross, but nasty nonetheless.
I was a bit disillusioned to have my memories of fruitcake shattered, but it was a good lesson in re-tasting. Just as a food you find deplorable might taste better with maturing tastebuds, unlikely seasonal delectables should be re-sampled every few years — just like the McRib. Which, by the way, is also quite delicious. I think … let me grab some over-the-counter nog to wash one down with and I’ll get back to you next month.
Send all unwanted fruitcake to MIKE BREEN: firstname.lastname@example.org