Jackie Hope: Nutty for fruitcake
Pity the poor fruitcake. Neither cake nor fruit, the fruitcake is resigned to being the rear end of jokes; the hiney of ha-has; the punch line of a Johnny Carson monologue. The most regifted gift in the history of Christmas. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect.
Fruitcakes, however, have a proud history. The earliest fruitcake recipes date to ancient Rome, where the fruited cake was made of raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds. Pomegranates were important to the Romans, and their myth of Proserpina, a spring goddess, involved her being dragged into the underworld, creating winter, because she ate three pomegranate seeds. Thus she was kept in the underworld for three months of the year. No reports about whether she ate fruitcake when she was there.
The number of seeds spring goddesses ate varies from geographical area to area. Persephone, the Greek spring goddess, is rumored to have eaten four seeds, and created four months of Greek winter. Our local spring goddess must have gorged herself, given the shortness of our North Dakota summers.
From the Roman’s three-seeded fruitcake to the Middle Ages’ honey and spice filled fruitcake, the cake gained popularity. By the 15th century, Germany was making a fine Christmas fruitcake, which they called stollen, or Christstollen. But it seems church laws forbade the cooks of Saxony from using butter; some sort of life-in-the-fasting-lane prohibition. The fruitcakes were so important to the locals, however, that they asked Pope Innocent VIII to lift the butter ban. And in 1490 he spread out a “Butter Letter,” which allowed Saxony to make their buttery-delicious stollen.
Americans took to fruitcake right from the country’s beginning. Plentiful sugar in the American colonies made for plentiful candied fruit; and where there’s candied fruit, there’s fruitcake. By the 20th century, fruitcakes became so popular, mail order companies began selling them as seasonal gifts.
Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, claims a 115-year history of fruitcaking, with their recipe being brought to America from Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1896.
The Collin Street website says its fruitcake went viral when the Ringling Brothers Circus rolled into town and circus performers were so besotted with the cakes, they sent them home to friends and family. Collin Street lists a menagerie of famous cake consumers, from Vanna White to Julius Erving to Nolan Ryan to President Ronald Reagan.
Heck, they even guarantee their fruitcakes, accepting returns with no questions asked. Uh, you don’t suppose they keep mailing out the same fruitcake, and then get it returned, over and over, do you? Nah. Well, maybe.
Viral fruitcakes notwithstanding, these little fruited Christmas wonders have a rep of endurance. In 2003, Jay Leno sampled a fruitcake that had been preserved since 1878 by a Michigan family.
Wow, can’t you see the reading of that family will? “And to my eldest son, I leave my Detroit City Bonds, my shares of General Foods, and my fruitcake.” Way to set your son up financially, man.
That brings us to 2014, and yesterday, which was Epiphany. Epiphany is the day Christmas presents were invented. Yeah, yeah, Epiphany is an important day for many reasons, but presents are pretty great, too. See, the Wise Men were probably packing fruitcake as well as gold and frankincense and myrrh for those first gifts. They were wise, right? So they must have known fruitcake would last them a long time on their journey. Sorta like elf bread in “Lord of the Rings.”
And, of course, we all know the Wise Men’s Christmas quest was ultimately fruitful.
So, speaking as one of the, maybe, 10 people on the planet — in addition to Vanna, Dr. J, and the Ryan Express — who loves fruitcake, if you were gifted with one of those mouthwatering mounds of cherries and pineapple and pecans this Christmas and are thinking of regifting It, shoot it my way.
Remember, the fruitcake stops here.
Hope is a humor columnist for The Dickinson Press and The Drill. She writes about everyday life, living in the Oil Patch and Twinkies.