- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
The phrase “nutty as a fruitcake” was first used in 1935 in reference to Southern bakers who loaded their fruitcakes with nuts. But what is the history of this heavy, fruit-laden cake?
The ancient Romans made a cake called satura to sustain their troops in battle. It consisted of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, raisins, barley mash, and honeyed wine. It was packed with calories and soaked in wine, which made it last a long time.
A similar form of fruitcake was used by Christian armies during the Crusades. During the Middle Ages, fruit, spices, and honey were added. The loaves were carried on long expeditions.
Also during the Middle Ages, dried fruits and nuts from the Mediterranean became available to western Europeans, resulting in variations on the fruitcake recipe. Italy introduced panforte and panettone. Germany created powdered-sugar-coated stollen.
The British form started as “plum pudding,” which was not sweet at all. After the 16th century, the expansion of the British Empire brought sugar from the Colonies and cheap brown sugar and rum from the West Indies. In the 1700s, fruitcakes became more cakelike after the introduction of butter and vanilla.
In the Christmas carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” there is a line, “Now bring us some figgy pudding.” In the 19th century, it was the practice of English nobles to feed carolers with a slice of this baked pudding, perhaps creating the association of fruitcake with Christmas.
During the Victorian era, the fruits and the cake were soaked in alcohol, which served as a preservative. As the cake aged, the alcohol softened the bitterness of the tannins in the fruits. Because the sweet fruitcakes were thought to be “sinfully rich,” they were outlawed throughout Continental Europe for close to 100 years.
Despite this restriction, Queen Victoria enjoyed a slice with her tea in the afternoons, ultimately making fruitcake, or plum cake, as the English called it, acceptable. In the late 1800s, regulations softened to allow fruitcake to be eaten at weddings and holiday celebrations.
Fruitcake came to America with the early Colonists and was used to sustain soldiers during the American Revolution. Rum, bourbon, brandy, or sherry was used to preserve the cake.
By the end of the 19th century, fruitcake had become a thoughtful gift to bestow upon friends. In 1913, the first mail-order fruitcake was sent. By midcentury, U.S. charities often sold fruitcake as a fundraising item. They typically came in a classic red gift tin.
In the early 1900s, because of the strong female prohibitionist sentiment, U.S. manufacturers dropped that one ingredient that made traditional fruitcake “work”: the alcohol. This “unleaded” recipe results in a dry, heavy, candied fruit-and-nut cake that has gotten a bad rap in America. The alcohol is integral to holding in the moisture.
Bakeries are continually perfecting the recipe to deliver the right blend of density, moistness, and flavor. The current recipe has 70% dried fruit and nuts! Today, mass-produced fruitcakes are typically 1.5-2 pounds and are alcohol free.
You can correct this problem by “feeding” the fruitcake. Dedicate yourself to pouring alcohol over the loaf every two weeks for at least a month before serving. It will be better if you continue every two weeks for a year! Brandy, rum, and whiskey will deliver a spicy flavor. Orange liqueur produces a citrus flavor, and cherry brandy and amaretto also work.
Today a $100 million industry, fruitcake is available as a light or dark cake. The lighter cake is made with golden raisins, candied citron, apricots, pineapples, maraschino cherries, and almonds. Darker fruitcakes are crafted with molasses, brown sugar, cherries, dried plums, cranberries, cherries, raisins, dates, pecans, and walnuts.
I believe the secret to enjoying fruitcake is in the bottle. Happy holidays!
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.