Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The earliest recipe from ancient Rome lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash.
In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added and the name fruitcake was first used. Robert Sietsema finds that inexpensive sugar from the American Colonies and the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits created an excess of candied fruit. The fruitcake was the way to use them.
In the 18th century, Europeans were baking fruitcakes using nuts from the harvest for good luck in the following year. The cake was saved and eaten before the next harvest. Fruitcakes proliferated until a law in Europe restricted them to Christmas, weddings, and a few other holidays. Even so, the fruitcake remained popular at Victorian Teas in England throughout the 19th century.
Mail-order fruitcakes began in 1913. The management of Ringling Brothers Circus liked the fruitcake from a local bakery in Corsicana, Texas. They ordered them as gifts to be mailed to friends around the country. Collin Street Bakery, using the old European recipe of baker Gus Weidmann and salesman Tom McElwee, grew quickly. They are still selling fruitcakes.
The modern fruitcakes are fundamentally butter cakes, with just enough dough to bind the fruit. The cakes are saturated with liqueurs or brandy, and covered in powdered sugar, both of which prevent mold. Brandy or wine-soaked linens are used to store the fruitcakes. Many people feel fruitcakes improve with age. Some cakes have been eaten 25 years after baking.
Fruitcake in popular culture
The fruitcake has become one of the most ridiculed foods and the butt of many jokes centered on its heaviness and long shelf life.
Former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson joked that there really is only one fruitcake in the world. It is passed from family to family -- a joke also frequently attributed to the writer Calvin Trillin, who denies being the source. Trillin says he was just passing along a theory he "had heard from someone in Denver". He continues, "There is nothing dangerous about fruitcakes as long as people send them along without eating them." The Fruitcake Lady makes appearances with current host Jay Leno where she offers her "fruitcake" opinions.
For the last nine years about 500 people show up in Manitou Springs, Colorado each January for the Great Fruitcake Toss. "We encourage the use of recycled fruitcakes", says Leslie Lewis of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. The all-time Great Fruitcake Toss record is 420 feet.
Fruitcake is also used, especially in the United Kingdom, as insulting slang for a 'crazy person' (e.g. "Laurence is a complete fruitcake"). It dervies from the expression "nutty as a fruitcake", which was first recorded in 1935.
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