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As Long as We Remember...

December 26, 2012

Yes, Dear Readers, Fruitcake Has A History

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The holidays are upon us and I can only be sure that many thoughts have turned to getting together with family and friends – and of course, the wonders of fruitcake.


Yes, fruitcake. Yeah! I know it is a rather heavy subject for the Christmas season, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I’ve been called many things over the years, but “Angel” is not one of them, so here goes.


Seems nothing stirs the passions of many like the subject of food. I’m still nursing the bruising I took several years ago when I commented on the virtues of squash: “As much as I like vegetables, one food that does not exist on the Dayhoff's Nutrition Pyramid (DNP) is squash. God created the squash as a joke. The word "squash" is Native-American for "mud disguised as plant."


Moving along; your intrepid writer here has observed that first among equals on the holiday food passion meter seems to be the topic of fruitcake. After all, nothing warms the cockles of one’s heart like fruitcake on a cold Central Maryland night. I have been told that fruitcake burns – forever – in the fireplace at a rather high temperature; and it adds a brilliant display of holiday colors to the flames.


The subject of fruitcake arrived when I was recently asked as to what was my favorite food during the holidays. To which I answered, “Yes!!!”


Fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the years. That’s probably because people haven’t had homemade dark fruitcake with icing – a Southern tradition.


According to various learned commentaries on the virtues of fruitcake, the concoction of chopped candied fruit, nuts, and spices – and plenty of alcohol – was quite popular at Victorian teas in 19th century England, where many know it as “Christmas Cake.”


Another variation of fruitcake – or “fruit bread,” is called “Panforte” and has its roots in Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy. This version may date back, according to various conflicting accounts, to the 12th or 13th Century.Some refer to Panforte as “Siena Cake.” Another slightly different variation is known as “Panpepato.”


The German variation of fruitcake is a Christmas treat known as Lebkuchen, also called Pfefferkuchen, which is more like a German gingerbread.


Whatever it is called, perhaps the secret to the popularity of the variation of fruitcake, we all know so well in America, belongs to the amount of alcohol in the recipe?


As I trolled various friends looking for additional ingredients for this column, the subject of alcohol came up frequently. Who knew? Holiday “spirits” were only rivaled by inquiries as to which friend or public official I was referring when I asked for quotes about ‘fruitcake.’


Indeed…Various accounts suggested that the term, “nutty” was first used in 1821 for meaning eccentric, wacky, or insane and “nutty as a fruitcake” was coined in either 1914 or 1935. However, try as I might, I could not find any additional context for the idiomatic or colloquial phrases.


Numerous accounts on the virtues of fruitcake recalled that during the Civil War, southern ladies would provide their loved-ones, leaving home for the war, with fruitcake.


Folklore also says that Benjamin Franklin suggested that bits of “fruit loaf” be used to supplement the colonists’ short supply of bullets. Other accounts say the Mr. Franklin opined that fruit loaf could be used to protect colonial soldiers from British cannon fire.


Actually, the history of the fruitcake is quite fascinating. It is reported that fruitcake first burst upon the food scene during the days of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.


According to the German Food Guide: “The history of the Lebkuchen begins with the Honigkuchen (Honey Cake). The Egyptians, around the year 1500 B.C., baked these cakes to be placed in the graves of kings. The Egyptians believed that honey was a gift for the gods. The Romans called their honey cakes ‘panus mellitus’ (sweet bread)…”


According to food writer Marjorie Dorfman “Egyptian fruitcake was considered an essential food for the afterlife…” and there are those today who maintain that this is the only thing it is good for is food for the afterlife.


In ancient Rome, raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds were added to barley mash, making the fruitcake handy and lethal catapult ammunition.


It was the arrival of cheap sugar from the American colonies that really got the fruitcake going in Europe in the 1600s.


It was at that time folks discovered that high concentrations of sugar could preserve and actually intensify the color and flavor of fruits.


The legendary longevity of fruitcake is actually by design. It was used as food on the road by intrepid armies and crusaders throughout history. By the 14th century, fruitcake was made after the fall harvest and stockpiled as a foodstuff for the following year – or decades…


Ms. Dorfman also writes that “even today it remains a custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of dark fruitcake under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry.” Now that is romantic.


How fruitcake became associated with the holidays may stem from a tradition in the 1700s when the English gave away slices of fruitcake to the poor who sang Christmas songs in the street.


Nevertheless, as a gift-giving idea, what can express your feelings better than giving the gift of a fruitcake to a loved-one or family member? It was the late Johnny Carson who observed that there is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.


… I’m just singing – err saying – Merry Christmas.


When I’m not singing for slices of fruitcake, I may be reached at


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