Another Side of Fruitcake
Confession. I have never had fruitcake. And today, I’m going to eat it. I know nothing about it. Yes, I know what it is, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it tastes like. What it smells like. I barely even know what it looks like, except for a vague and generic fruitcake image in my mind. I don’t know who its natural enemies are or what it might like for Christmas. Fruitcakes are so hard to buy for.
What I do know is the jokes. And we’ve all heard them. Fruitcake is the original Spam. There’s the famous Johnny Carson line about how there’s only one fruitcake in the entire world, and everyone just keeps sending it to each other. There’s the joke about how everyone loves the fruitcake Grandma brings for Thanksgiving. Then there’s an extra football to throw around. I’ve heard fruitcake also makes a great doorstop.
But why do people hate it so? A version of the fruitcake has existed in many cultures, dating back to ancient times, which in fruitcake years, is yesterday. Egyptians sent the cakes into the afterlife, entombed with the dead, and the Romans ate them for sustenance during long battles. In the 18th century, the cake was even banned in Europe, being thought of as sinfully rich. Just think: there might have once been a fruitcake black market. Bad ass.
Perhaps the fruitcake backlash can be explained with a bit of cultural analysis. Traditional fruitcakes were family recipes and passed down from an older generation that valued sustenance and heartiness. Today’s fruitcake is more likely to be mass-produced, using less expensive ingredients such as citron, the candied peel of the fruit, which is more bitter than sweet. Perhaps we no longer have a use for a cake that can survive the winter, the year, or the rest of our lives. We already have Twinkies for that.
The average fruitcake weighs two pounds and contains candied fruits, nuts, flour, eggs, sugar and spices. Grandma’s special recipe may also contain whiskey, rum, or brandy. Supposedly, fruitcakes age like fine wines with the fruits releasing tannins. Whether or not there exists a contingent of fruitcake connoisseurs is questionable, but there is a Society for the Protection and Preservation of Fruitcake.
Maybe I could start a revolution. Right here, right now. Today is the day we will begin to re-evaluate fruitcake. Today we will realize that making fun of fruitcake is as lame as yelling requests for “Freebird” at random shows. Today we will feel the chill in the air and see our breath fogging the windows, and we will say, a la Truman Capote’s essay “A Christmas Memory,” it’s fruitcake weather!
And today is the day that I’m going to eat fruitcake.
Wait a minute. This thing has raisins. Golden raisins. Shudder. I’m about to call the whole revolution thing off.
I bought an Entenmann’s. Basically, I trust Entenmann’s. My grandmother wasn’t the baking, recipe-handing-down type. She bought her Entenmann’s at the grocery store. And by that, I mean stockpiled. Donuts, Danishes, crumb cakes, all of it. And if she knew we were coming over, she would run out to the store and buy an extra three boxes of those damn rich-ass chocolate donuts, in case we decided to eat an unprecedented thirty six donuts that day. But who knows what she saw in her eighty-five years? I believe she was wise. You have to be prepared for your grandchildren to eat their weight in donuts, if they so desire.
My grandmother didn’t understand the words “not hungry.” And so began the vicious and perpetual cycle of me and my sister eating them out of guilt. Guilt donuts are an unstoppable force.
So I had to go with the Entenmann’s. I know folks are going to object to my fruitcake methodology. Here I bought a mass-produced, petrified fruitcake. I know somebody’s grandmother has the best recipe ever, and somebody knows a ninety-year-old Jamaican woman who soaks the cake in rum for six months, and somebody has a co-worker and so on. Say it. I’M DOING IT WRONG.
The thing is heavy. The ingredients list the dreaded golden raisins, cherries, pineapple, pecans, grapefruit peels, orange peels, and lemon peels. Sounds disgusting. Smells like raisins. Feels like a loaf of lead. It may look moist, but it’s actually just greasy.
As I’m serving the cake, I realize that the girlfriend and I had never had a very important conversation—the fruitcake conversation. We’ve had consistent talks over the years about goals, money, and kids, but I’ve never asked her opinion on fruitcake. So I asked.
“I love fruitcake!” she said.
“Wait, what? You love it?”
She was one of those people. It was like when I found out she reads those novels where the author’s name is embossed in gold on the front of the cover. Or when I first looked at her CD collection and found the most generic 90s collection, ever. Ace of Base. Meredith Brooks. TLC. Hootie.
What about Nirvana? What about f—ing “Sgt. Pepper?” What about getting the Led out? What about showing your face in a record store?
“Yeah, I got them all from the BMG Music Club!”
She’s just one of those people. Of course she likes fruitcake.
And what would it mean if… I liked it, too?
I read that fruitcake ought to served in a celebratory manner, so I busted out only the best of the best: real plates instead of paper, the Spuds Mackenzie Christmas glass, and Baltimore’s finest beer, the Resurrection Ale.
But as for the taste, gross. I’ll describe it like this: mouthfuls and mouthfuls of chewy, cloying, indistinguishable pieces. The slice in the picture looks like it contains cake, but it’s actually cardboard holding together all that day-glo colored “fruit.”
To be fair, the girlfriend also hated it. And then she refined her earlier “I love fruitcake” proclamation to include only her aunt’s. I can live with that. But her CDs are still not allowed on my CD shelf.
This piece originally appeared in Shel’s sweet and chewy blog The Surfing Pizza.
PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR