Growing up in Chicago, Isabelle Kyrk loved eating fruitcake during the holidays. Her family would order one from the Trappist monks at Gethsemani Abbey, who’d bake a cake of mixed fruit and raisins and nuts, dunk it in Kentucky bourbon and ship it off. Kyrk and her five siblings savored every bite.
“It was delicious,” she still remembers.
But as the years passed, Kyrk began to realize that not everybody shared the warm fuzzies she felt toward the traditional holiday treat.
“As I was growing up, I heard these skeptical things about fruitcake,” she says. “Jokes about fruitcake—general fruitcake negativity—and I had no idea why they would think that way.”
The fruitcake haters bothered Kyrk so much that in 2005, she started a website called Mondo Fruitcake. Its ongoing mission is to publish Kyrk’s reviews of various brands of mail-order fruitcakes. But beyond that, she simply hopes to do her part in reversing the tide of fruitcake bashing that’s become common in America. As the site’s About page makes clear: “This is a disparaging-fruitcake-comment-free zone.”
Fortunately for Kyrk and people like her, there’s good news to report on the fruitcake front. After decades of suffering slights of every description, the fruitcake industry is seeing not only vigorous sales, new brands and an increasing interest on the part of younger consumers, it actually seems to be getting something fruitcake-makers aren’t always used to—respect.
“I’ve been surprised to hear from people who don’t have a history of fruitcake consumption that they’ve bought one recently,” says Valerie Neff-Rasmussen, marketing specialist for online gourmet shop Zingerman’s. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based family business estimates it will sell 880 fruitcakes this year—a seemingly modest number until you consider that these are cakes individually baked by California epicurean Robert Lambert, and they start at $70. In fact, fruitcakes at Zingerman’s have been selling out for the past few years, Neff-Rasmussen says, but “I don’t think they’ve ever sold out as early as they did this year.”
Business is also very good at the Date Lady, a site that sells homemade date-based sauces, caramels and syrups. Seeking to “make a fruitcake that would change people’s perceptions,” founder Colleen Sundlie added the item to her offerings two years ago and since then, she says, “we have easily doubled our sales, [and] we’re doing absolutely no paid marketing at all.”
This is also a good fruitcake year for long-established brands. Harry & David, a food-and-gift retailer founded over a century ago, says it will sell well north of 100,000 fruitcakes this year. And Claxton Fruitcake, a family-owned bakery in continuous operation since 1910, reports that orders are up for 2017, driven in part by a new offering: chocolate-covered fruitcake nuggets.
Added to its lineup with only moderate expectations, the fruitcake snacks have proved to be “popular with younger people—extremely popular” relates company vp Dale Parker. “I’ve been real pleasantly surprised. The last two years, we’ve sold out before Christmas—and we have just a few left now.”
In light of a vigorous economy and low unemployment, it’s not a complete surprise that sales of a holiday-indulgence item are going well. Except when you consider that fruitcake is possibly the most stereotyped, misunderstood and frequently ridiculed item on the holiday table.
Wherefore the fruitcake hate?
Say what you will about fruitcake, but it’s been around longer than you have. In fact, it’s older than many religions. There’s a 2,000-year-old recipe from ancient Rome for a barley-mash cake with raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds, an antecedent to today’s far fruitier fruitcakes. During the Middle Ages, spice cakes loaded with preserved fruit grew popular and developed into regional variants including panforte in Italy and Stollen in Germany. In Great Britain, from the 19th century forward, fruitcake swaddled in cheesecloth and soaked in brandy was a delicacy savored at Christmastime and weddings alike.