In Defense of Fruitcake
The Christmas loaf people love to hate is better than you think. In fact, it’s a metaphor for the holiday.
This time of year, the world is divided into two kinds of people: Those who love fruitcake, and those who haven’t tried it.
I realize this is a bold statement, especially considering that fruitcake has a mixed reputation – and by “mixed reputation” I mean “everyone seems to despise it with Grinch-like hatred.” However, after years of promoting my beloved yuletide dessert to friends, family, co-workers, and anyone who will listen, I believe my conclusion stands.
Before I lay out my theory, please allow me to wax poetic about fruitcake. Unlike so many other Christmas goodies, fruitcake isn’t merely sweet, as all those one-note sugar-, chocolate-, or sugar-and-chocolate-coated seasonal snacks can be. Fruitcake is also rich (thank the brown sugar and molasses), spicy (nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and cloves), zesty (if, like me, you add lemon and orange zest, not to mention candied fruit), and moist (if done right – i.e., filled with raisins and dates, soaked in brandy, and not overcooked). In other words, it’s food fit for kings, or at least fit for Victorian engravings of aristocratic yuletide merriment.
The big secret about fruitcake isn’t how grandma managed to bake it to the consistency of a bowling ball, or what dye is pumped into candied cherries to make them phosphorescent, or even the kind and quantity of brandy to marinate your fruitcake in (although the answer to the brandy questions are “any kind” and “lots”). These are merely secondary questions, best answered by consulting your favorite cookbook. No, the big secret is that very few people – and hardly anyone born after Gene Autry first warbled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – has actually tried fruitcake. If received as a gift, they’ve tossed it into the trash. If spied on a holiday buffet, they’ve passed over it on their way to another plateful of Snickerdoodles.
Fruitcake has achieved near mythical yuletide status, like figgy pudding or the abominable snowman.
Why? Simply put, fruitcake is the victim of bad publicity. That’s mostly because, as a foodstuff requiring a score of ingredients and multiple hours of baking, it’s entirely possible to screw it up. And screw it up people have. Even I’ll admit that flame-broiled-on-the-outside, hard-as-a-brick-on-the-inside fruitcake is an abomination to the art of cooking, if not to Christmas itself. A few overly baked fruitcakes spoil more than a few fruitcake-eating experiences, and word begins to spread – urban legend-style – that fruitcake is an unpalatable menace. Fewer people eat fruitcake, which means fewer people make fruitcake, which eventually means that fruitcake achieved near mythical yuletide status, like figgy pudding or the abominable snowman.
My advice, as a fruitcake connoisseur, is just to try some. Almost inevitably, as I’ve pressed friends and colleagues who “don’t like fruitcake,” I’ve discovered that only a few have actually tried the stuff. And when they do, they like it – even love it. (OK, maybe a few of them are just saying that to get me out of their faces.) Fruitcake may be an acquired taste, but before Dec. 25 arrives, it’s one you’d be well-advised to acquire.
Beyond its superior flavor and the connection it has to centuries of culinary tradition, I recommend fruitcake because it’s a wonderful metaphor for the season itself. Our families and our communities are made up of disparate ingredients. For some, Christmas is a time of religious devotion; for others, it’s a secular season during which we cherish each other’s company. Christmas is a time during which, whatever our personalities or beliefs – whether we’re raisin or candied kumquat, currant or clove, butter or egg – we at least try to be baked into a harmonious whole, something divinely delicious, something to be savored.
All right, maybe that’s pushing the metaphor a little far. Just try the fruitcake, OK?