The Magnificent History of the Maligned and Misunderstood Fruitcake

Yves here. I once  had a bona fide homemade fruitcake…which was not bad. It was properly stored in a tin, wrapped in a kitchen towel, and redolent of alcohol.

But the US grocery store versions, uniform rectangles wrapped in cellophane with neon-colored candied fruit are almost certainly the source of widespread antipathy for this doorstop dessert. I deem the main culinary problem to be the lousy candied fruit. Other festive dishes with candied fruit like the Chinese ba bao fan (I mean, who doesn’t like sticky rice? and sweet red bean paste too!) are treats despite not being cloyingly sweet.

And if we must remain in the Christmas vein, plum pudding beats fruitcake hands down.

Now if any readers have recipes that are good enough to challenge these prejudices, speak up!

By Jeffrey Miller, Associate Professor of Hospitality Management, Colorado State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake – or, at the very least, a fruitcake joke.

A quip attributed to former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson has it that “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.

Two friends from Iowa have been exchanging the same fruitcake since the late 1950s. Even older is the fruitcake left behind in Antarctica by the explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910. 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.

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 trifecta of sugar, low moisture ingredients and some high-proof spirits make fruitcakes some of the longest-lasting foods in the world.

The Original Energy Bar

Fruitcake is an ancient goody, with the oldest versions a sort of energy bar made by the Romans to sustain their soldiers in battle. The Roman fruitcake was a mash of barley, honey, wine and dried fruit, often pomegranate seeds.

What you might recognize as a modern-style fruitcake – a moist, leavened dessert studded with fruits and nuts – was probably first baked in the early Middle Ages in Europe. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were symbols of culinary sophistication, and these sweet spices started appearing alongside fruit in many savory dishes – especially breads, but also main courses.

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.

British and American versions are much more cakelike. For over-the-top extravagance, honors have to go to a British version that crowns a rich fruitcake with a layer of marzipan icing.

Sweetening the Pot

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.

A Dessert with Staying Power

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

Fruitcake aficionados will tell you that 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 brushing your fruitcake periodically with your preferred distilled spirit before wrapping it tightly and letting it sit in a cool, dark place for up to two months. The traditional spirit of choice is brandy, but rum is also popular. In the American South, where fruitcake is extremely popular, bourbon is preferred. A well-seasoned fruitcake will get several spirit baths over the maturation period.

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

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.

Given fruitcake’s long shelf life and dense texture, it was a natural for a mail-order food business. America’s two most famous fruitcake companies, Claxton’s of Claxton, Georgia, and Collin Street of Corsicana, Texas, got their start in this heyday of mail-order food. By the early 1900s, U.S. mailrooms were full of the now ubiquitous fruitcake tins.

As late as the 1950s, fruitcakes were a widely esteemed part of the American holiday tradition. A 1953 Los Angeles Times article called fruitcake a “holiday must,” and in 1958, the Christian Science Monitor asked, “What Could Be a Better Gift Than Fruitcake?” But by 1989, a survey by Mastercard found that fruitcake was the least favorite gift of 75% of those polled.

Haters and disrespect aside, fruitcake is still a robust American tradition: The website Serious Eats reports that over 2 million fruitcakes are still sold each year.

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  1. norm de plume

    I have never liked fruitcake (though I have been called one often enough). I only ate it a Xmas as a kid because both of my grandmothers made legendary versions, and each added lots of 1, 2, 5 and 10 cent coins, one of them even throwing in the odd 20c. With 4 brothers and 17 first cousins, it was ‘on for young and old’ when they emerged steaming from from the stove.

  2. Basil Pesto

    Now if any readers have recipes that are good enough to challenge these prejudices, speak up!

    that depends on how open you are to the unique delights of summer Christmas (though I guess you might be limited by what’s in season). I’d take a Pavlova topped with passionfruit pulp and raspberries over a fusty old fruitcake any Christmas.

    1. TMoney

      I never understood the lack of love for fruit cake. I love it all. The good stuff (rare) and the store-bought stuff.
      My mum makes (made) a mean Pavlova, although it’s been many years since I’ve seen one. I never knew the history though. Not the usual NC fare, but this fruitcake was delighted to see THE fruitcake get a proper airing of grievances.

      Nom Nom Nom. I’ll be eating the fruitcakes after the zombie apocalypse.

  3. The Historian

    My mother and everyone in the neighborhood used to make fruitcakes every Christmas (tradition!) and we all hated them. But we went to a neighbor’s house one year and she made the most amazing fruitcake I’ve ever eaten. It was made with pineapple, maraschino cherries, walnuts and rum. If I could find her recipe, I’d make one every year!

    But my favorite holiday treat for all time is baklava.

    1. Paul O

      I still make fruitcake for Christmas every year – ideally a few months ahead, leaving it to fester in some cognac. It’s always popular once tried, though many people are not keen to try it at first. Tomorrow I must make the marzipan – a highlight for me – homemade marzipan can also be delicious.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I have remembered reading in the past about some varieties of apricot producing seeds either so low in cyanide or actually zero in cyanide as to be edible in numbers. They are called “sweet apricot seeds” .

            I found an ad for such . . .

            Are there ways to process apricot seeds to drive off the cyanide?

  4. dougie

    Let’s face it. Traditional fruitcake is just plain nasty. BUT, years ago, I discovered fruitcake Nirvana, in the form of

    Huge amounts of English walnuts, and only a very occasional piece of candied fruit. Just enough golden batter to hold the nuts together. We gift them to close friends and business vendors every holiday season, and all have become converts! About 5 years ago, we changed it up, and gifted honey baked hams. Several recipients privately commented that they MUCH preferred the gift of fruitcake!

    I just had a 4 oz., 530 calorie slice for breakfast. Only because I am going to be running a chain saw and spiltting firewood most of the morning!

    1. kw

      dougie, Thanks for the link. I ate Deluxe fruitcake from Corsicana for years and last year tried after hiatus. It was disappointing and wrote the company with concerns over rancid tasting pecans and got no response.

  5. Watt4Bob

    Anyone a fan of Date-Nut bread, baked in cans, sort of halfway between bread and fruit cake?

    My Mom used to bake a lot of them at Christmas time.

    1. griffen

      I’d give that a try. My sister in law used to make date balls (assuming she still does so but the nest is empty). Those date balls were better than just a sugary treat or Christmas cookie.

    2. Pat

      I remember dropping in to the rare even then Chock Full of Nuts to order their date nut bread with cream cheese. Does that count?

    3. The Historian

      That sounds good! I love dates. There was a company that used to sell kits to make date bars but I can’t find them any more.

    4. Valerie

      I make those. They mail well. My military father loved to get those in the care package when overseas. I’ll be happy to post the recipe if anyone wants it. Dead easy! Vermont Country Store sells the commercial date nut bread in a can but it’s very pricey.

      1. Watt4Bob

        My Grandmother used to send me lefse through the mail, wrapped around a stick of margarine.

        She was afraid real butter wouldn’t make it.

    5. HotFlash

      Yes indeedy! That would be the Cross and Blackwell canned date nut bread. I presume it was a steamed bread/cake similar to Boston brown bread. The internet has a number of copycat recipes for the C&B, if you are interested. It is indeed steamed, as is (ahem) plum pudding.

  6. Seth Miller

    The black cake that my wife, her aunties, her late mother, and in fact all of the women in her family know how to bake, is neither misunderstood nor disrespected. For people from the English-speaking Caribbean, it is a huge part of Christmas. (I won’t get into the recipe, since I lack the expertise, but I know that the fruit is basic dried fruit steeped in rum for a year, the black color is from a Caribbean chef’s signature move of beginning with burnt sugar, and, yes, like the English it is topped with marzipan). A story: the janitor at my office, a man from Trinidad, spotted some black cake at the office Christmas party, and I foolishly allowed him a piece. He bothered me all the next year for a cake of his own, but my wife was not about to bake one for him. And that’s how we left it.

    1. HotFlash

      Black cake! I have never tried to make it, but I was once gifted a home-made one by a Trinidadian employee. OMG. OMG. And OMG again. To be fair, it might have tasted nasty (I doubt it), but with all that rum, I really could have cared less.

  7. Wukchumni

    Ever make French toast out of slices from an Italian Panetone fruitcake, which barely has any fruit on it?

    Oh, so good.

    1. lordkoos

      My wife loves Panetone, I’ll have to suggest that to her. Me, I don’t do well with wheat so I’m off the hook.

    2. Harold

      Panetone seems like the apotheosis of fruitcake.

      I also like the little tartlets that used to be served at Christmas, such as lovely Pecan tasties, which I made myself one time. Somehow they have an appeal that a larger slice of pie might lack. Perhaps it is because the preserved fruit is more like a candy than a food, a little can go a long way.. The little mini pies with preserved quince or other fruits also appeal to me.

      “They dined on mince, and slices of quince.” — E. Lear

  8. The Rev Kev

    Ahhh, fruitcake. My kryptonite! Just now had a slice of one that my wife cooked a coupla days ago and it was a winner so am looking forward to eating the rest over Christmas. I use to get dark fruitcake through the year for a long time as a snack to go with coffee but the past two years or so, they no longer sell it anymore in supermarkets and I have no idea why. But am still fussy enough to like them without either walnuts or cherries as they distract from the taste. Maybe one of my new year’s eve resolutions should be to learn how to make one in the coming year. :)

  9. Stephen V.

    You all have reminded me that decades ago I used to make a Cranberry pecan bread –fresh cranberries and pecans with a touch of orange rind–which wasn’t bad.
    All that’s left of my Christmas bake now is my Italian mother’s (Polish!) kolache-a walnut / apple sauce pastry roll–a whole other deal.

  10. bassmule

    Fruitcake quality is beyond my scope. As a wine salesman, however, you get all kinds of questions at holiday time. One of them is “What wine (or “Is there any wine”) matches with fruitcake?” There actually is an answer. From Kermit Lynch, the importer:

    “Bugey-Cerdon is anything but a serious wine. Its seductive deep pink glimmers in the glass, emanating ambrosial fragrances of alpine strawberries and roses. It dances over the palate, just sweet enough, perked up by a fine bead and a crystalline finish crisp as a mineral spring. Great wine does not need to be thought-provoking or meditative—Patrick’s Bugey-Cerdon is proof that a top terroir can manifest itself in the most festive and carefree of ways.”

    Kermit Lynch

    1. Mikeyjoe

      That bourbon fruitcake looks delicious!
      My mother-in-law used to add some brandy or whiskey to the fruit before baking.
      It was and is my favorite fruitcake.

  11. KLG

    When I was a kid through the 1960s my grandmother (b. 1910) made several fruitcakes every Christmas. And she did not leave out the bourbon! And while I liked her pound, German chocolate, and coconut cakes better, the fruit cake was a treat, too. And they did last and last and last!

  12. Utah

    I have ordered fruitcake from Collins Street bakery before as gifts. That’s the best fruitcake I’ve ever had. I have lots of fond memories of stopping there on family road trips in the 90s when they were still on Collins Street. As far as popularity goes, I think if most people had good fruitcake they would like it, but the cheap grocery store fruitcake doesn’t compare to good fruitcake at all.

    1. chuck roast

      I never gave fruitcakes a second thought until I saw Pee Wee Herman’s 1988 Christmas Special. It was a zany, fall-down laughathon. It’s right up there with Ralphie and The Christmas Story, but Rubens did himself and nobody else a favor when he got popped lurking around the wrong restroom. Consequently, all of his brilliant work has been consigned to the fringes. Enjoy if you can find it. Here’s a peek.

  13. coboarts

    The old c-rations fruit cake was the old Roman Army powerbar. Mentioning sweet rice, we’re enjoying jack fruit num som. My wife rolls fresh jack fruit, after wrestling with the jack fruit, into sweet rice with fresh scraped coconut and wraps it in banana leaves, then boil for a couple hours, good stuff

  14. Matthew G. Saroff

    From a coroner’s report:

    The contents of the decedent’s stomach revealed that he had had salmon and broccoli for dinner, a burger and fries for lunch, and a fruitcake at some point in the past 6 years.”

  15. Vandemonian

    We have a family tradition of getting together before Christmas to make the Christmas pudding. Each of us in turn gets to stir the mixture, even the one year old. The recipe is an old hand me down written in blue ink in an exercise book:

    Xmas pudding (Nana*)

    1 lb breadcrumbs (brown)
    1 lb plain flour
    2 lb suet
    2 lb raisins
    2 lb sultanas
    1 lb brown sugar
    1/2 lb mixed peel
    1 nutmeg
    16 eggs
    A little brandy**

    There are no instructions given, just the ingredients.

    In practice, all ingredients are mixed thoroughly with a wooden spoon in a large bowl. The mixture is then wrapped tightly in a calico cloth, boiled for five or six hours, and left hanging until needed. Examples have kept well for a couple of years.

    To serve, boil again for three hours, remove the cloth, poke a sprig of holly in the top, and douse in warm brandy which is set alight.

    Accompaniments: brandy butter, double cream, ice cream.

    * Nana was born midway through the century before last, and died in 1939.
    ** ‘little’ is somewhat of an understatement. Around half a bottle is usually deemed to suffice.

  16. Ancient1

    The Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas has been baking fruit cakes since 1896. They have a returning customer base even though their cakes cost over $30.00 plus shipping. Past experience is the cakes are not bad at all, but I was raised on fruit cakes at Christmas. Must be habit.

  17. Patrick Morrison

    I’ve made Alton Brown’s fruitcake recipe ( every year for Christmas for the last ten years and have been required by friendship to do so for the last nine.

    One of the friends I gave it to that first year raved and raved about it and it has become a tradition. We now have a standing lunch date where we catch up and exchange the fruitcake for their homemade ginger beer. It doesn’t hurt that my wife considers it the only fruitcake worth eating and I agree with the other poster that a slice with morning coffee at breakfast is a special treat. Brown makes a point to avoid candied fruit, rather macerating dried fruit (cherries, blueberries, cranberries, …) in rum overnight to plump them up.

    Paul O…
    > Tomorrow I must make the marzipan – a highlight for me – homemade marzipan can also be delicious.

    Tell me about how you make marzipan. The marzipan my grandparents gifted us was an important part of my childhood Christmas and I am all for learning how.

  18. Antagonist Muscles

    I know this post is about rectifying fruitcake’s image, but the standup comedian Jim Gaffigan bashing on fruitcake is funny. I’ll quote from his six minute bit on cake (5:45):

    You’d think [fruitcake] would be better. It doesn’t add up. Fruit, good. Cake, great. Fruitcake? Nasty crap.

    Earlier in the video, he makes a great point when contrasting eating cake with drinking alcohol. Lots of people boast about how much alcohol he or she can drink. Nobody boasts about pigging out on cake. Whenever I hear someone boast about how many drinks he had, I silently shake my head and steer clear of that person.

  19. HotFlash

    I didn’t know that fruitcake was considered a laughable thing until I saw a Christmas card which showed a stern-looking angel with a flaming sword at a the entrance to the stable. The card read, “It is not generally known that there were actually four wise men, but one was turned away for bringing fruitcake.” Now me, I really love a good fruitcake, but agree that the quality of fruit, of which there should be lots, is primary. My mother and I started making fruitcakes in the 1950’s, not a family tradition on either side before that. My maternal grandma was neither a cook nor a baker. Irish cuisine is not exactly world-famous for a reason, and her go-to was “Busy Day Cookies”, which were something like a small, dry pancake. My paternal grandmother was of German background and was an very good cook, an outstanding soup-maker, but only a mediocre baker — not that she let that stop her. Her pfeffernuesse and springerle I liked a lot, and as I was the only grandchild who did, I got the lion’s share. Her lebkuchen, OTOH, would have made good saddle leather, and her sugar cookies were downright dangerous. If the linoleum-hard cookie didn’t break your teeth, the little silver bullets and cinnamon hearts that she glued glued onto them would. Perhaps the fact that she started in June was a factor, somehow.

    My Mom and I started baking fruitcakes when I was 12 or 13. There was a little store in our town called Detroit Tea. They had, along with bulk teas, coffees, spices, and many other exotics, stainless steel bins of gooey candied fruit which you bought separately — candied cherries in red or in green, candied pineapple, candied orange, citron, or lemon peel, golden raisins, almonds — things not available in the (3) supermarkets in our town. We bought so many ounces of each, according to the two recipes for the light and the dark fruitcakes (dark had chocolate in it!). We would spend several companionable hours slicing, dicing, blanching, and slivering them, each according to their kind. Then measuring, mixing, and (my fav) lining the baking pans with brown paper.

    We would make this fruitcake at (US) Thanksgiving, then wrap the loaves in cheesecloth. dipped in some el cheapo wine, perhaps a port, for the dark, and a pale sherry (IIRC) for the white, and then in aluminum foil. Once a week we would unwrap the cakes, re-dip the cheesecloth, and seal the cakes up again. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the recipes but, more importantly, cannot locate good-quality fruit anymore. Perhaps I will have to candy it myself — I do know how, it’s just a lot of work.

    But I digress. Bassmule had addressed the question of “what pairs with fruitcake?” I’ll tell you what — a mug of tea and some sharp old cheddar, ideally when standing on the deck of a sailboat on a nippy night, but really, anytime.


  20. eg

    My mother makes a dark, moist fruitcake (no alcohol or nuts) from a recipe she learned from the English wife of another officer while my father was in the RCAF. It’s so moist that it’s almost pudding-like and is baked in the oven along with a pan of water for the steam. While it can also be cut in small pieces, the classic serving was in a bowl with a lump of what she called “hard sauce” (an off-white, extremely sweet sort of frosting) and eaten with a spoon.

    As a result I generally find other fruitcakes very dry and unappetizing.

    She also used to make mince tarts, which I really miss.

    1. HotFlash

      EG, sounds to me like you’ve got some kind of Christmas pudding there, perhaps even the elusive plum. The giveaway is the hard sauce — in my fam hard sauce was 1 cup each of butter, sugar, and flour; IOW, a sweet cream sauce. The sugar may have been icing/confectioners, I can’t recall. Grandma didn’t put any alcohol in it, so far as I am aware, but we all, even us little kids, did have a merry Christmas. So maybe she did. Woohoo!

  21. SteveB

    I’m told the only things left after a nuclear holocaust will be:

    Betty White, a cockroach and a fruitcake

  22. Frank

    I love fruit cake with a piece of sharp cheddar. Too bad it is reserved for the New Year time.
    Another famous New Year cake is the famous Chung cake which is a must for Tet.
    Bourbon is nice with fruit cake, but Mekong Brandy is a necessity for Chung cake to dissolve the lard.

  23. Phil in KC

    In Kansas City, the fruitcake of choice is baked by the monks at Conception Abbey, about 90 miles northeast of here. My understanding is that they have been sold out for some time now! This is a new development in local fruitcake history, as they were available in grocery stores until just a few years ago.

    This discussion veered into a discussion of other holiday breads/cakes, yet not a single mention of Povatica! Or is that a separate subject?

  24. Wukchumni

    This discussion veered into a discussion of other holiday breads/cakes, yet not a single mention of Povatica! Or is that a separate subject?

    Hear here, I grew up eating Stollen merchandise slathered with marzipan inside, oh so good.

  25. Dave in Austin

    Here at NC people care deeply about inflation, the environment and our governments lousy response to Covid. But there is only one subject that will generate 60 comments overnight.

    Fruitcake! I can almost smell it. Proust would be proud.

    As with all controversial subjects, I must let you know where I stand: Collins Street over that stuff from Georgia; Stollen baked by the 6” tall German rocket scientist’s daughter in New England who married my best friend in 1969; Trappists seem to have a suspiciously large amount of alcohol around; Panetone always goes on sale the day after Christmas and helps me get through the winter.

    I regretfully canceled my Christmas flight from Austin to Providence, RI because of Omicron and was facing a desolate Christmas and New Year. But now, thanks to you all, I’ve taken three steps: ordered a fruitcake from Collins (will arrive by New Year and the tins make excellent parts bins); unfrozen my frozen fruitcake mix (time for one soak of rum and no more); hinted to the German girl that a stollen might make a good Christmas present.

    I’m always happy when Naked Capitalism draws my attention to the really important issues of the day.

  26. McWatt

    One of my Uncles, who worked in Venezuela in the 1950’s, was never in the States at Christmas time. But each year he sent the families of his brothers and sisters fruitcake in a round tin. I don’t know where it was from but since I loved sweets I was, I think, the only one in my family who ate it at Christmas.

    I forgot about fruitcake for many years but when we moved back to town I happened to go to my grandmothers favorite bakery and to my great joy found they hand make a fruitcake every Christmas. Best ever.

  27. roxan

    I made a traditional plum pudding, once, using an old Scottish cookbook–such an odd recipe–lots of suet and boiling! It was delicious! I actually do have a good fruitcake recipe as Mom made several dozen every year. One thing you do need is currants, which are hard to find.

  28. John Emerson

    In my life, fruitcake hatred began with Dave Barry, a writer I otherwise liked, who pulled the joke out every year. My mom made wonderful fruitcake and the jokes really hurt her feelings. I loved her fruitcakes though if it were up to me, I’d leave out the citrons and Brazil nuts.

    The key I think is using enough rum so they don’t dry out, and aging them right.

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