In 1985 Johnny Carson famously joked that "there's only one fruitcake in the world and people keep passing it around," helping to cement this treat as the punchline dessert of the holiday season.
But fruitcake only recently became a laughingstock. For hundreds of years they were a European delicacy, and to this day they're an important fixture at royal weddings.
Since today is National Fruitcake Day, let's take a look at the interesting history of this controversial cake, to find out how its once sweet public image soured.
Fruitcake Around the World
The earliest recorded fruitcake lovers were the ancient Romans, but their version is closer to what we'd think of as a power bar. Other ancient cultures dabbled in combinations of fruit and cake, but the dessert really came into its own in the 16th century, when the abundance of sugar made sweet, dried fruit easy to come by.
Bakers began to make all sorts of regional varieties of fruit breads and cakes, many of which are still popular today. There as many different styles of fruitcakes as there are bakers. In Italy there's the Panforte,
while in Germany they enjoy the Stollen,
the Bahamas even have their own version, the Black Cake, which is soaked in rum for as long as a year before serving.
But in North America we normally associate fruitcake with a round or loaf shaped cake with lots of nuts, mainly because America's two biggest fruitcake companies (Claxton Bakery and Georgia Fruitcake Company, both in Claxton, Georgia) each have access to a lot of cheap nuts. Every year, Claxton's bakeries produce over 4 million pounds of fruitcake.
That's a lot for such an unpopular food!
Fruitcake's Lasting Impression
There's no shortage of jokes about how fruitcake is seemingly indestructible, but this is kind of true. Because most fruitcake is made with a lot of liquor or powdered sugar, they almost never go bad. Science tells us a fruitcake that's stored well is still safe to eat 25 years later - you know, if you're brave enough!
In 2003, Jay Leno sampled a fruitcake from 1878 that had been kept as a family heirloom, saying that it "needed more time." Fruitcake fans who want to see an ancient slice up-close can visit American President Grover Cleveland's birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey where a slice of his wedding fruitcake has been preserved since 1886.
Or, if you have a few thousand dollars to spare and you're in the market for a fruitcake slice with some pedigree, you can buy a slice of the traditional fruitcakes served at British royal weddings. A slice of William and Kate's (admittedly fancy) fruitcake sold at auction in 2014 for $4,160.
That was for an almost fresh piece, but a year later a slice from Charles and Diana's cake sold for $1,375. The 34 year-old slice was apparently "still edible," but there's no word if the new owner gave it a taste.
For the truly daring, there's a really "out of this world" fruitcake relic on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington: a piece of fruitcake from the Apollo 11 mission. That's right, even though Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were hundreds of thousands of miles from any food that didn't come in a tube, their pineapple fruitcake still didn't seem appetizing.
Down With Fruitcake
We admit fruitcake isn't for everyone, but researchers think that the food only earned its bad reputation recently. Starting in 1913, ordering fruitcake by mail as a holiday gift became a kind of fad. To make sure the cakes stayed edible, bakers began making the hard, less appetizing version that we usually think of today.
Still, hating on fruitcake has become a holiday tradition in its own right, and it can be lots of fun. In Manitou Springs, Colarado, townspeople get into the Christmas spirit by launching the loafs in their annual Fruitcake Toss. The event hasn't been held for a few years, but as you can see from this video it was a real to-do, complete with catapults and even a fruitcake cannon:
Whether you like fruitcake or not, you have to admire a holiday tradition that's been around for so long. There are probably fruitcakes being baked right now that will outlast all of us, and in a world as hectic as ours, it's nice to know that some things never change.