Research: The Reputation of American Fruitcake

Wednesday, March 22, 2017
A couple of Decembers ago, my friend Chris and I enjoyed some of the truly wonderful julekake he had baked for the first time. And a couple of days later, I devoured a terrific little pannetone cake that came in a Foods of the World assortment. If other countries have mastered the method for baking an actually tasty fruitcake, why does that word send a shiver down every American spine?

In a way, terrible fruitcake is all our fault. Back in the 16th century, European fruitcake was humming along quite nicely as a symbol of a successful harvest season, when suddenly, cheap sugar poured in from the American colonies. Candying fruit became a simple way of preserving it, making it available to places with a dearth of fresh produce. Inserting the sugared fruit into cake was a convenient way of making a buck, and since fruitcakes were heavily produced in the American South, cheap surplus nuts found their way into the recipe as well. Soaking it in booze helped counteract some of the sweetness, and no doubt gave people a handy way of coping with their families around the holidays.

Fruitcake was popular enough to become a Christmas staple, so what precipitated its fall from grace? A lot of it has to do with marketing, a problem that plagues white bread as well. In the early 20th century, industrialization transformed the food landscape. Mass-produced fruitcakes were sold via mail-order, and these newly available cakes definitely did not represent the height of quality. Fruitcakes became heavy and dry.

From there, its popularity began a steady decline it has never recovered from. It became associated with other bygone recipes of your grandmother’s kitchen, like aspic casseroles. Tales and jokes about people’s hatred of fruitcake proliferated; one article I found mentioned a soldier who received a gift of fruitcake on the front lines of WWII, shoved it in his bag, and discovered the uneaten cake 40 years later in his mother’s attic. Johnny Carson joked that “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” a jibe that people have been repeating almost word-for-word to this day.

Some American bakeries claim that fruitcake is making a comeback, but this doesn’t really pass the sniff test. Christmas baking displays often exclude them. Restaurants don’t serve them. Nobody I’ve talked to about it can seem to remember the last time they spotted one at a family gathering, unless one was served as a joke.

It’s not all bad news for fruitcake, though. There does seem to be one country that appreciates American fruitcake. Japan apparently can’t get enough of the stuff, enjoying the sweetness of the fruit and the dense texture of the cake. So, in the interest of the season of goodwill, let’s strike up a mutually-beneficial trade agreement. Japan can have all of our fruitcakes, and we’ll take Norway’s.