Why do we eat fruitcake at Christmas?

By Linda Browne

Whether you love it, loathe it, or feel just plain “meh” about it, most of us would probably agree that there’s never been a treat so maligned as the festive fruitcake. Comedian Johnny Carson once famously quipped that there’s only one fruitcake in the world, and people keep passing it around.

Many sources trace the fruitcake back to Roman times. But Crystal King, a Boston-based teacher, marketing professional, author and culinary enthusiast who blends her love of food and Ancient Rome together in her historical fiction works including Feast of Sorrow and The Chef’s Secret, says that what we know as fruitcake today, and what people consumed back then, are quite different things.

“It’s a slight bit of a stretch, but the ancient Romans did have some form of compact cake made with what they called alica, a form of emmer groat similar to semolina,” she writes in an email to Downhome. 

According to the instructions noted in Apicius (a collection of Roman recipes believed to be compiled sometime in the 1st century AD), King adds, “Alica is boiled with skinned pine nuts and almonds, which have been washed in some ‘silver’ chalk to make them equally white… Add to this raisins, caroenum (a wine syrup) or passum (a sweet raisin wine). You would sprinkle ground pepper over the top and serve it in a dish. It would have plausibly been compacted together into something like what we might consider like an energy bar.” (In The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by food historian Alan Davidson, who also wrote many of the entries, he notes that this cake, “full of added ingredients,” was known as a satura, which is linked to the words “saturate” and “satire.”)

While this isn’t exactly your Nan’s fruitcake, by the time the Renaissance rolled around, King says, “there were all manner of sweet pastries full of candied citron, ginger, raisins and currants, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.” She notes that Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi describes such pastries in his menus and has a recipe for a tourte that combines grated pears and quince (a fruit related to pears and apples), “which are cooked with marzipan paste, candied citron, candied orange peel, sugar, sugared pine nuts, eggs and crumbled mostaccioli cookies (similar to a biscotti). This is a bit more of a pie, however, baked in a pastry crust, but the flavours are clearly along the fruitcake lines.”

She adds, “Candied citron, orange, lemon, lime and ginger were very common in tarts, cakes and pastries in late Medieval and Renaissance times… I’m quite sure that the popularity of the candied fruit in Italian cuisine likely excited British chefs… Plus, the preserved nature of the fruits made perfect sense in a fruitcake, which was meant to be made long before it was served.” 

In addition to a fruitcake’s impressive shelf life, another positive for people back then was that they could use pretty much whatever they had on hand, says Dr. Michael MacKinnon, who teaches the course Food, Diet, and Dining in Antiquity in the department of classics at the University of Winnipeg. 

“Fruitcake is one of those things that one can put practically anything into it, so that diversity would also appeal to variable harvests of fruits and other foodstuffs in antiquity,” he writes via email. 

According to Davidson, fruitcakes as we know them today “cannot date back much beyond the Middle Ages. It was only in the 13th century that dried fruits began to arrive in Britain, from Portugal and the E. Mediterranean.” In earlier centuries, he writes, these were called “plum” or “plumb” cakes (“‘plumb’ denoting all kinds of dried fruits”), and while the name survives in mainland Europe, “it often means a sadly dry product without much fruit.”

Some sources, including the Smithsonian Magazine, have surmised that the usually dry, mass-produced mail-order fruitcakes that became available in the early 20th century are to blame for the treat’s unsavoury reputation. Some are so passionate in their distaste for the dessert that they’ve created events dedicated to celebrating their disdain, like the Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado, where fruitcakes are collected and sent flying through the air by hand, slingshot, catapult or other means. 

But for others, baking a fruitcake is a labour of love. Davidson gives a glimpse of how arduous this process was in the 18th century. “Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or ‘barm’ from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed into life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-firing baking ovens of that time.” Throw in the cost of ingredients, and it’s little wonder that these cakes were reserved for special occasions like weddings, christenings and Christmas. 

Fruitcakes and Christmas sweet breads and cakes exist in some shape or form around the world (like the julekage in Scandinavia, stollen in Germany and bolo de mel in Madeira), and regardless of how you feel about them, they’re likely here to stay. At least if you’re not a fan, you can always use them as a festive door stop or paperweight!.

(photo submitted by Perpetua Quiqley)

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