’Tis the season for friends, family, fun and well, um, ah — fruitcake. Yes, fruitcake. This year National Fruitcake Day takes place on Dec. 27. Yes, I know it is a heavy subject for the holiday season. First among equals on the Carroll holiday food passion meter seems to be the topic of fruitcake. Perhaps it is a result of our combined English and German heritage, in which the virtues of fruitcake seem to have played a role.
After all, nothing warms the heart like fruitcake on a cold Carroll County 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 what was my favorite food during the holidays. To which I answered, “Yes.” Although food is one of my favorite writing topics, I have not found the nerve to write about fruitcake often in the past because it gets such a rise out of folks. Nevertheless, portions of this column have been soaked in sugar and published before — as recently as December 2017 — and served with tea.
Fruitcake has received a bad rap over the years. That’s probably because folks 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 in Victorian teas in 19th century England; where many know the holiday cake 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 variation 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.” According to some old file notes, “Documents from 1205 show that “panforte” was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax or tithe which was due on the seventh of February that year.”
“Literally, panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavor. The original name of panforte was ‘panpepato,’ peppered bread, due to the strong pepper used in the cake…”
The German variation of fruitcake is a Christmas treat known as lebkuchen, also called pfefferkuchen, which is more like a German gingerbread.
In a sermon by Unitarian Universalist Rev. Ann C. Fox on Jan. 1, 2006, she said, “By the time of the Revolutionary War, it is my opinion that the disparagement of the fruitcake had begun. Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said, when there was a shortage of bullets that they should use — yes – pieces of fruitcake … During the Civil War, Southern ladies gave packages of fruit cake to their sweethearts who went off to war …”
A colleague recently asked if it was legal to sell fruitcake in Carroll County. Well, when it comes to heavy subjects, I usually like to go straight to the top and get in touch with Westminster Police Chief Tom Ledwell, and Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees. Both responded that to the best of their knowledge it is legal to sell fruitcake. Neither responded as to whether or not there was a seven-day waiting period before you can actually take possession of a fruitcake.
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 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 they are good for. In ancient Rome, raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds were added to barley mash, making the fruitcake not only 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.
Dorfman also writes, “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, in age of so much strife and discord, I yearn for a time when peace will rule the planets and I can gather slices of fruitcake by roaming the neighborhood singing Christmas songs. To paraphrase Rev. Fox, I’m praying that we let go those things that trouble us or make life more difficult for us.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.