Fruitcake, the dreaded gift

Jill Wedeking

Foodies define fruitcake as a cake containing chopped, candied fruit, dried fruit, nuts and spices that are traditionally soaked in spirits. Being the brunt of many jokes, this heavy-duty dessert tends to make its appearance around the holidays, usually thanks to the same relative year after year.

This tradition dates back to the Roman Empire and ancient Egypt, where the cakes were used to celebrate weddings and to send loved ones into the afterlife. So how did this cake go from an honorary dessert to the American staple joke of a cake?

The joke behind the cake

Fruitcake is mainly ridiculed in the United States, and the jokes focus on the cake’s density and extended shelf life. With proper storage, a fruitcake can last months due to the mold-preventing alcohol.

Looking at the history of the cake, they were obviously constructed to last, and they did: Romans carried them into battle, Egyptians entombed them and 18th-century nut harvesters save a cake for a whole year as a good-luck harvest charm. And yes, they would eat the year-old cake at the beginning of the next year’s nut harvest.

The fact that this cake has been historically made to be preserved and not eaten immediately is a recipe for fruitcake jokes. Many actually attribute the start of fruitcake jokes to comedian Johnny Carson, who hosted “The Tonight Show” before Jay Leno. He would joke that there was only one fruitcake in the world that was “regifted” from family to family, showcased on “Ask the Fruitcake Lady” segments on “The Tonight Show.” 

The mail-order fruitcake idea that came about in the 20th century didn’t help its reputation much either.

The most popular thing to do with a fruitcake is to “regift” it. You can also use one as a new doorstop, stepping stool or even a scratching post for your cat. All we know for sure is somewhere down the line, the fruitcake went from an honorary celebratory cake to the centerpiece that never gets touched at family gatherings.

However, when you see one this holiday season don’t judge by the reputation. Give it a try and judge for yourself!