The history of Fruitcakes may seem like a strange choice for one of our holiday blogs. However, the Fruitcake had a long and fun history in my family. Our fruitcakes ranged from the terrible bricks passed around from family member to family member until it landed in the lap of an unsuspecting person to the delectable rum-soaked treats that we clamored to get as much of as possible
For many families, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without the exchange of fruitcakes. They are sometimes called Christmas cakes or, in England, plum cakes. Fruitcakes are cakes made with dried or candied fruit, nuts, sugar, spices, and sometimes alcohol. They are surprisingly dense, with a density comparable to mahogany. They are common worldwide, especially in Europe and in the English commonwealth countries, with significant regional variations
We can blame the Romans for the invention of fruitcake.
The Romans made the oldest known recipe for Fruitcake. They initially used them as a form of MREs for their soldiers. However, Roman fruitcakes, called satura, were quite different from those we are familiar with today. The Romans made fruitcakes with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and barley mash, often shaped into a ring. Soldiers carried these long-lasting, calorie-dense cakes with them on campaigns. Interestingly enough, the word “satire” came from satura because of the sweet and sour mix in the cakes.
Europeans dubbed them “fruitcakes” during the Middle Ages. Their fruitcakes were even denser than the Roman ones, laden with fruit, spices, and honey. The fruitcakes varied substantially from region to region. Like Roman soldiers, Crusaders took fruitcakes on campaign as an easily carried, long-lasting, and high-calorie food source.
The expansion of trade routes, the age of exploration, and colonization made fruitcakes as we know them today.
In the 1400s, Europeans began importing dried fruit from the Mediterranean. However, the more significant change came about in the 1600s when the colonies provided access to abundant, inexpensive sugar. They discovered that soaking fruits in high concentrations of sugar intensified the color and flavor of the fruit and acted as a natural preservative. This allowed them both to preserve local fruits to be enjoyed in the off-season and transport fruit over long distances.
The resulting fruitcakes became heavily laden with fruits and sweetened with large amounts of sugar. During the 18th Century, people started adding nuts to fruitcakes. They baked special ceremonial fruitcakes with nuts at the end of the season’s harvest. These fruitcakes were then stored until the start of the following year’s harvest. They ate the cakes in the hopes of a successful harvest.
By the 18th Century, fruitcakes had become so dense, sweet, and rich that countries in Europe actually outlawed them for their decadence. These laws were eventually repealed. In England, fruitcakes were popular at teatime. Queen Victoria especially loved fruitcakes. Queen Victoria even chose Fruitcake as her wedding cake like many English royals after her. This tradition continues through today. Upon her marriage to Prince William, Kate Middleton had Fruitcake at her wedding.
Fruitcake is not just for the holidays.
While we tend to think of fruitcakes as a Christmas season specialty, they are also commonly associated with weddings and other special occasions. In England, unmarried wedding guests place a slice of Fruitcake under their pillow so that they will dream of the person they will marry. In the United States, this tradition developed into the piece of any wedding cake around the beginning of the 20th Century.
We don’t know why fruitcakes became associated with Christmas specifically, but one theory is that it was passed out to poor carolers in the late 18th Century.
Despite their earlier popularity, fruitcakes became an object of ridicule during the second half of the 20th Century.
This may have been in part because they were so ubiquitous. Inexpensive, mass-produced, mail-order fruitcakes that were heavy, dry, and overwhelmed with candied fruits and pecans flooded the consumer market. Television also played a part in the Fruitcake’s fall from grace. It was made fun on Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and more recently on The Tonight Show. Manitou Springs, Colorado, even celebrates a Fruitcake Toss event in January. There, people toss fruitcakes by hand or by using devices ranging from slingshots to catapults.
In the United States, December 27th is National Fruitcake Day, and it is followed two weeks later by Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3rd. So, particularly in the US, Fruitcake is still a large part of the holiday traditions, whether you like it or not.
To help bring back the positive aspects of Fruitcake, we decided to share a couple of our favorite recipes. The first is a recipe based on the original roman cake, and the second is Galen’s family recipe handed down for generations.
We hope you enjoy it!
Explore more of our December Holiday Blogs
- Advent Calendars
- Hanukkah: A Brief History of Hanukkah, The Dreidel: History and How to Play (not always in December)
- Saint Nicholas: Who was Santa Claus (December 6th)
- Saint Lucia’s Day (December 13th)
- Yuletide: Midwinter Yule
- The History of the Yule Log
- Christmas Tinsel: The Legend of the Christmas Spider
- The Christmas Tree: Olde Tannenbaum
- Christmas Stockings: A Brief History