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Holiday Fruitcake

Why Fruitcake Has Such a Bad Holiday Gift-Giving Reputation

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We spend a lot of time talking about the best presents to give friends, family, and loved ones during the holiday season.

What about the worst?

Culturally, the gift with the worst gift-giving reputation is a fruitcake.

You’ve probably seen them in stores during the holiday season, and almost every culture has its own version of this dessert. Its popularity may even seem to contradict its notoriety, but it’s hard to deny that fruitcake is a difficult gift to give someone else.

So what exactly contributes to fruitcake’s bad reputation? Should you gift a fruitcake this year? Keep reading to find out.

What is fruitcake?

A fruitcake is a dense and moist cake filled with candied fruits, dried fruits, nuts, and spices. It’s frequently soaked in spirits or liquor.

Most fruitcakes look less like cakes and more like loaves of bread. Very rarely, they might have icing or frosting on top. 

While you may have heard that fruitcake doesn’t taste good, a well-made fruitcake should taste like a dense, richly spiced cake full of sweet fruit and liquor flavors. It may not be everyone’s preferred dessert, but if you make one at home you’re sure to appreciate the flavors much more than if you pick one up from a convenience store.

In fact, you might be surprised that despite its reputation, fruitcake is actually a tasty treat.

If you want to try to make your own fruitcake, here’s a recipe from King Arthur Flour that promises to be delicious. But you’ll have to be the one to decide whether or not you want to take the risk to gift it to someone else.

How has fruitcake evolved over time?

Fruitcake hasn’t always had a bad reputation. Its history actually suggests that it has played a vital role in many cultures, and still does to this day.

Ancient Rome 

One of the oldest versions of fruitcake is the one used by Roman soldiers when they were in battle. Because the combination of grain, wine, and dried fruit could last a long time without spoiling, it was perfect for travel and sustained the soldiers while they were fighting.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, fruitcake started to take on a more recognizable recipe. This moist dessert had fruit and nuts and also contained sophisticated spices (for the Middle Ages) such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

Modern Fruitcake

There are two popular versions of fruitcakes today: European fruitcakes and American and British fruitcakes. In most of Europe, fruitcakes resemble the fruited bread from the Middle Ages. American and British fruitcakes, in contrast, are sweeter and more cakelike.

Fruitcake’s controversial gift-giving reputation

If you’ve heard people complaining about fruitcakes, their opinions have probably been based on two of fruitcake’s most notorious characteristics: its sweetness and its longevity. 

If you haven’t heard people complain or joke about fruitcakes, here are some of the most common sayings that plague fruitcakes in modern culture:

  • Fruitcakes are inedible doorstops.
  • Fruitcake is just bread with nuts and gummy bears in it.
  • “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” This quote is straight from Johnny Carson in 1978, and this just might be the year that fruitcake gained its bad reputation. You can read more about this Infamous Fruitcake Joke.

Why is fruitcake so sweet?

A stereotypical fruitcake is a very sweet dessert. After all, it’s a cake filled with candied and dried fruits. However, this is actually a critical component of fruitcakes throughout history. 

If you’ve ever purchased fruit from the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed that it can go bad fairly quickly, even with modern refrigeration. But historically, one of the most popular ways to preserve fruit for long periods of time was to “candy” it. This process includes cutting the fruit into small pieces, boiling it in sugary syrup, tossing it in more sugar, and allowing it to dry.

Historically, fruitcake was filled with candied lemons and oranges. These fruits are usually grown in warmer climates, so serving them as the weather got colder was a sign of wealth. The addition of liquor was even more luxurious.

Today, citrus fruits are cheaper and no longer a sign of luxury. Plus, companies that mass-produce fruitcakes aren’t known for using these authentic flavors and ingredients at all. Most companies use dried cherries and liquor flavoring. The result can be less than appetizing.

Why does fruitcake last so long?

You can thank the liquor in fruitcake for its long shelf life. 

If you’ve ever met a fruitcake connoisseur (yes, these people exist), they will tell you that a delicious fruitcake should be matured for at least three months before you eat it. Periodically during this waiting period, the fruitcake should be brushed with brandy, bourbon, or rum and stored in a cool, dark place.

Today, we may think it’s strange to eat a cake made months ago. But remember that before refrigerators, foods that could last were highly desirable.

In fact, in the early- to mid-20th century, people used to mail fruitcakes to each other as wonderful, edible holiday presents that wouldn’t spoil before reaching their destination.

Unfortunately, “mail-order fruitcakes” that were mass-produced were probably the beginning of the end of fruitcakes as an enjoyable holiday treat.

Tips for gifting fruitcake

Fruitcake has a bad gift-giving reputation, but maybe it’s undeserved. If you want to resurrect a holiday tradition, try giving friends or family a fruitcake this year. Here are some tips to make your efforts welcome and successful.

  • Make your own fruitcake. The reputation of most store-bought fruitcakes isn’t great. Your cake will probably taste much better if you make your own.
  • Don’t gift it alone. Add another gift to the box or bag with the fruitcake, like a bottle of wine or a holiday ornament. 
  • Have a sense of humor. Try not to be offended if the recipient isn’t excited about your gift. If you make it more of a joke, they will probably be pleasantly surprised when they actually taste it.

If you decide to gift a fruitcake this holiday season, we wish you the best of luck!

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