Peggy Keener: The holiday treat that never ever retreats
Published 6:30 am Saturday, January 9, 2021
I could have become emotional, you know, lamenting the pesky social restructuring of the holidays this past year. But I resisted. Why bother when we’ve all heard everything there is to say about the scary strangeness of it all. Instead I have chosen to lift you up. Enlighten you. With what, you ask? Well, of course, the study of fruitcake!
Lesson One. Cinchy. All fruitcakes are not created equal. This I discovered early on when as a small child I learned to relish the REALLY HEAVY DUTY versions. You know, the ones loaded down with every nut and candied fruit known to the Western World; the ones requiring both hands to hold a single slice.
There are competitors, of course. Take the lame Italian panforte or pannetonne. Way too skimpy; shouldn’t even be called fruitcake. Why, they’re like eating a chocolate chip cookie with only one chocolate chip. I mean when you can play a game of dot-to-dot on each individual piece of fruit in your fruitcake, trust me, it’s an over the top bogus fruitcake.
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And German stollen is no better. What a wimpy excuse for a holiday treat. The thin sprinkling of powdered sugar on top is so very wrong—a colossal disappointment in the sweet department. Give it the hook!
What really puzzles me, though, is why fruitcake gets such a bad rap. Like it’s some kind of joke. Take, for example, those malcontents who use this perfectly good holiday treat as a doorstop. Folks like that need to be put in the corner.
Okay, so I’ll admit it’s derided by most of mankind. You’d think that Beelzebub himself had baked it. The sarcastic Johnnie Carson may have disdained it best: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world. People keep sending it to each other.” As for me, I’m wondering how I can get on that mailing list!
Fruitcake has incredible staying power. (But, then, you already knew that.) Its history goes all the way back 2000 years to ancient Rome where pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins were all mixed together in a barley mash. Hmmmm! Barley mash? And you think it has an off flavor now?
Later in the Middle Ages, fruitcakes—called satura—were made with honey, preserved fruit and spices. Then in the 18th century, butter and sugar were added. Ironically, these were banned because Europeans found them over the top
rich and tasty. Puleeze! Just when did rich and tasty—butter, for Pete’s sake—become a bad thing?
In Victorian England, plum cake—their version of the fruitcake—was a highly popular holiday staple. It later morphed into a traditional wedding cake. Indeed, both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton set a new monarchy tradition when they served it at their weddings. You could do this yourself with your own multi-tiered wedding fruitcake … if you reinforce the floor under the serving table.
To create a fruitcake, the fruit and nuts must be first dried and then soaked in sugar. You see sugar is a good thing, for it is that which keeps the cake fresh. Some recipes call for alcohol or for the cake to be stored in an alcohol soaked cloth. Alcohol, don’t you know, kills bacteria which results in your fruitcake lasting a really looooong time. Like your favorite old bathrobe, some cakes are still good after 25 years!
One incredibly devoted family has held tightly onto their fruitcake for more than 130 years. By now it’s considered a family heirloom even though it has dried into a solid rock hard chunk. Think if everyone in the world sent their unwanted cakes to these folks, they could construct a wall. The Great Wall of Fruitcake!
A woman named Deborah Papier made her feelings known when she sneered, “For months they have lain in wait, dim shapes lurking in the forgotten corners of houses and factories. Now they are upon us, sodden with alcohol, their massive bodies bulging with strange green protuberances, attacking us in our homes, at our friends’ homes, at our offices—there is no escape. It is the hour of the fruitcake.”
Dec. 27 is National Fruitcake Day. One week later on January 7, is (disrespectfully) Fruitcake Toss Day. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, this is taken extremely seriously by holding a contest to see who can throw their fruitcake the farthest and with the most accuracy. Some zealots go way beyond hand throwing by using catapults and slingshots. Entry into the contest is one donation to the local food bank …. which, by the way, cannot be fruitcake.
I find this all frightfully impertinent! In light of such universal disesteem, I proclaim myself a safe haven for unwanted fruitcakes. Send them to me. I’ll shelter them for 25 years and then use them to build a foundation for my new retirement home. I will be 107 years old, the pinnacle of good living for me … and for my sanctum sanctorum shelter for rejected, orphaned fruitcakes.