The Magnificent History of the Maligned and Misunderstood Fruitcake

We all know what a fruitcake is, or at least we think we do

The simple holiday fruitcake has been to outer space, served as the world’s first energy bar, and is an international $100 million business. However, despite all of these achievements, this ancient Roman dessert is still the target of countless jokes.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The polarizing dessert that people love to hate became a Christmas mainstay thanks, in part, to the U.S. Postal Service. An estimated 3 billion packages will circulate through the postal service and delivery companies this holiday season. Somewhere among them is a 50-year-old fruitcake from Otsego County, New York.

Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake—or, at the very least, a fruitcake joke. In a 1985 monologue, “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson quipped: “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep sending it to each other.”

It’s certainly earned its reputation for longevity.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

True to Carson’s word, Phyllis Eggler and Jeanne Schuyler have been exchanging the same fruitcake since the late 1960s. The Egglers and the Schuylers were both newlywed couples living on different floors of the same home on Valleyview Street in Oneonta.

“He was very cheap,” Eggler said of their landlord. Eggler said the fruitcake gift inspired a prank.

“My husband and I rewrapped it as a joke,” she said. “That got it started.”

“The next year, we sent it back to them,” Schuyler said. “We’d just go along with it.”

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eggler and Schuyler, now in their 80s and widowed, still talk on the phone regularly and have no plans to give up the tradition. “It’s just a little fruitcake, but we’ve had lots of laughs over it,” Eggler said.

Mail-order fruitcakes became a popular holiday tradition in the early 20th century due to their enduring shelf life. Traditional recipes call for soaking a loaf in liqueur or brandy and coating it in powdered sugar, both of which are thought to inhibit mold.

Fruitcake is known to stay fresh for an inordinate amount of time.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2017 Antarctic conservators came upon a specimen that tests the limits of the treat: a 106-year-old cake, found in one of Antarctica’s first buildings. This particular cake is believed to have been brought over in 1910 during the Terra NovaExpedition to the South Pole, led by British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott. According to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, “it has been documented that Scott took this particular brand of cake with him at that time.”

But the honor for the oldest known existing fruitcake goes to one that was baked in 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year Freida Ford whipped up a fruitcake that would age for a year before being served the following holiday season. After making a cake in 1878, the 65-year-old matriarch died before it could be eaten. When the holidays arrived, the family no longer regarded her handiwork as food. They saw it as a legacy. Now it’s being kept in tribute to Ford’s great-grandson, Morgan, who was its biggest champion until his passing in 2013.

What’s amazing about these old fruitcakes is that people have tasted them and lived, meaning they are still edible after all these years.

The combination of sugar, low moisture ingredients (dried nuts, dried fruit, and “candied” fruit or peel) and some high-proof spirits make fruitcakes some of the longest-lasting foods in the world.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fruitcake’s great, great, grandfather is the Roman Satura. The ancient Romans were looking for a way to sustain their troops in battle and developed a bread consisting of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, raisins, barley mash, and honeyed wine. This cake was packed with calories and lasted long enough to fortify a soldier through an epic and exhausting campaign.

As dried fruits became more readily available, this Roman warrior energy bar eventually made its way off the battlefields and into homes as a dessert for special occasions. When Rome fell, local variations on the fruitcake emerged including Italy’s dense, sweet-and-spicy panaforte (literally, “strong bread”) and panettone, Germany’s stollen, a tapered loaf coated with melted butter and powdered sugar that’s more bread-like in consistency, and Britain’s plum pudding

Then, during the sugar boom of the 16th century the fruitcake, that we know today, began to emerge in Europe. Increasing amounts of fruit began to be preserved by soaking the fruit in inexpensive sugar from the colonies.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The modern fruitcake was created as a way to deal with the abundance of sugar-laced fruit and, by the early 19th century, the typical recipe was full of citrus peel, pineapples, plums, dates, pears, and cherries. By the late 1800s, the fruitcake was gifted in decorative tins, becoming a holiday staple with Christmas and fruitcake becoming intertwined in Victorian England with the help of colonial sugar.

The British adaptation of the Roman Satura recipe, plum porridge, was influenced by the sugar trade and the traditional meat in the porridge was replaced with the readily available sugar preserved fruit. During Christmas in the 19th century, it was traditional for English nobles to feed poor carolers with a slice of plum pudding and the Christmas carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” made begging for this figgy pudding famous.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fruitcake becomes part of American history thanks to the very first first lady, Martha Washington, who made it for friends and family. So did another American icon, Emily Dickinson. The beloved poet made sure to bake fruitcake for everyone on her Christmas list. For a recluse and an introvert, she had a lot of friends. Her recipe for black cake, so called because it is brandy-rich, thick, dense, and dark with raisins, prunes, and dates—serves 60.

Before long, most cuisines had some sort of fruited breads or cakes that were early versions of the modern fruitcake. Fruitcakes are different in Europe than they are in America. European fruitcakes are more like the medieval fruited bread than the versions made in Great Britain and the United States. The two most common styles of fruitcake in Europe are the stollen and panettone.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

British and American versions are much more cakelike. Fruitcakes came to America with the European colonists, and the rising tide of emigration from Britain to New England closely mirrored an influx of cheap sugar from the Caribbean.

Sugar was the key to preserving fruit for use across the seasons. One of the favorite methods of preserving fruit was to “candy” it. Candied fruit, sometimes known as crystallized fruit, is fruit that’s been cut into small pieces, boiled in sugar syrup, tossed in granulated sugar and allowed to dry.

Thanks to this technique, colonists were able to keep fruit from the summer harvest to use in their Christmas confections and fruitcakes became one of the most popular seasonal desserts.

Fruitcakes were also popular due to their legendary shelf life, which, in an era before mechanical refrigeration, was extremely desirable.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best fruit cakes are matured—or “seasoned” in fruitcake lingo—for at least three months before they are cut. Seasoning not only improves the flavor of the fruitcake but it makes it easier to slice.

Seasoning a fruitcake involves soaking cheesecloth in brandy, bourbon, whiskey, rum or other liquor and then wrapping it around the cooked, cooled fruitcake and storing, or simply brushing the cake with an alcohol of your choice and wrap tightly and letting it sit in a cool, dark place.

Credit for the fruitcake’s popularity in America should at least partially go to the U.S. Post Office.

Fruitcake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The institution of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 and the addition of the Parcel Post service in 1913 caused an explosion of mail-order foods in America. Overnight, once rare delicacies were a mere mail-order envelope away for people anywhere who could afford them.

Worth Pondering…

Friends are the fruitcake of life—some nutty, some soaked in alcohol, some sweet.

—Jon Ronson