Roman soldiers, booze, and mail trucks shaped the fruitcake’s rich history

Jeffrey Miller is an affiliate professor of Hospitality Administration, Colorado State College. This story initially featured on The Conversation.

Nothing says Christmas fairly like a fruitcake—or, on the very least, a fruitcake joke.

A quip attributed to former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson has it that “There is just one fruitcake in your entire world, and other people maintain sending it to one another.”

It’s actually earned its repute for longevity.

Two pals from Iowa have been exchanging the same fruitcake for the reason that late Nineteen Fifties. Even older is the fruitcake left behind in Antarctica by the explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910. However the honor for the oldest identified current fruitcake goes to at least one that was baked in 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the US.

What’s wonderful about these outdated fruitcakes is that folks have tasted them and lived, which means they’re nonetheless edible in spite of everything these years. The trifecta of sugar, low moisture substances and a few high-proof spirits make fruitcakes some of the longest-lasting foods in the world.

The unique power bar

Fruitcake is an historical goody, with the oldest variations a sort of energy bar made by the Romans to maintain their troopers in battle. The Roman fruitcake was a mash of barley, honey, wine and dried fruit, typically pomegranate seeds.

What you may acknowledge as a modern-style fruitcake—a moist, leavened dessert studded with fruits and nuts—was in all probability first baked within the early Center Ages in Europe. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were symbols of culinary sophistication, and these candy spices began showing alongside fruit in lots of savory dishes—particularly breads, but in addition essential programs.

Earlier than lengthy, most cuisines had some type of fruited breads or truffles that have been early versions of the modern fruitcake.

Fruitcakes are totally different in Europe than they’re in America. European fruitcakes are extra just like the medieval fruited bread than the variations made in Nice Britain and the US. The two most typical kinds of fruitcake in Europe are the stollen and panettone.

British and American variations are rather more cakelike. For over-the-top extravagance, honors need to go to a British version that crowns a wealthy fruitcake with a layer of marzipan icing.

Panettone cake from Italy with candied orange pieces sliced open on a wooden cutting board
Panettone, an Italian specialty typically baked with candied orange items, is an area variation of the fruitcake. Deposit Photos

Sweetening the pot

Fruitcakes got here to America with the European colonists, and the rising tide of emigration from Britain to New England carefully mirrored an influx of cheap sugar from the Caribbean.

Sugar was the important thing to preserving fruit to be used throughout the seasons. One of many favourite strategies of preserving fruit was to “sweet” it. Candied fruit—typically referred to as crystallized fruit—is fruit that’s been minimize into small items, boiled in sugar syrup, tossed in granulated sugar and allowed to dry.

Due to this method, colonists have been in a position to maintain fruit from the summer season harvest to make use of of their Christmas confections, and fruitcakes turned one of the widespread seasonal desserts.

A dessert with endurance

Fruitcakes have been additionally widespread on account of their legendary shelf life, which, in an period earlier than mechanical refrigeration, was extraordinarily fascinating.

Fruitcake aficionados will inform you that one of the best fruit truffles are matured—or “seasoned” in fruitcake lingo—for not less than three months earlier than they’re minimize. Seasoning not solely improves the flavour of the fruitcake, however it makes it simpler to slice.

Seasoning a fruitcake entails brushing your fruitcake periodically along with your most popular distilled spirit earlier than wrapping it tightly and letting it sit in a cool, darkish place for as much as two months. The normal spirit of alternative is brandy, however rum can also be widespread. Within the American South, the place fruitcake is extraordinarily widespread, bourbon is most popular. A well-seasoned fruitcake will get several spirit baths over the maturation interval.

Credit score for the fruitcake’s reputation in America ought to not less than partially go to the U.S. Put up Workplace.

The establishment of Rural Free Supply in 1896 and the addition of the Parcel Put up service in 1913 caused an explosion of mail-order foods in America. In a single day, as soon as uncommon delicacies have been a mere mail-order envelope away for individuals wherever who might afford them.

Given fruitcake’s lengthy shelf life and dense texture, it was a pure for a mail-order meals enterprise. America’s two most well-known fruitcake corporations, Claxton’s of Claxton, Georgia, and Collin Street of Corsicana, Texas, received their begin on this heyday of mail-order meals. By the early 1900s, US mailrooms have been filled with the now ubiquitous fruitcake tins.

As late because the Nineteen Fifties, fruitcakes have been a broadly esteemed a part of the American vacation custom. A 1953 Los Angeles Instances article referred to as fruitcake a “vacation should,” and in 1958, the Christian Science Monitor requested, “What Might Be a Higher Present Than Fruitcake?” However by 1989, a survey by Mastercard discovered that fruitcake was the least favourite present of 75 p.c of these polled.

Haters and disrespect apart, fruitcake remains to be a strong American custom: The web site Critical Eats reports that over 2 million fruitcakes are still sold each year.

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