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.
Fruitcake won a place in American culture, too. In 1969, astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission took a fruitcake into space—but not exactly in our hearts. Fruitcakes in Europe, Neff-Rasmussen says, “don’t have a bad reputation—it’s just our fruitcake.”
No doubt about that. The jokes made at fruitcake’s expense are legion. The best known is probably Johnny Carson’s 1985 quip that there’s actually only one fruitcake in America, “and people keep sending it to each other.” The late-night host, who went on to make fruitcake-bashing something of a holiday tradition, was probably responsible for an entire generation’s presumption that fruitcakes are dry, flavorless and heavier than lead.
But Carson was hardly the first. There’s a story that George Washington received a fruitcake as a Christmas gift in 1794 but returned it because he considered it improper for an elected official to accept a gift that weighed over 80 pounds.
However it got started, the bashing of fruitcake has remained fashionable. A site called the Great Fruitcake Recycling Project dedicates itself to addressing “the devastating environmental impact of fruitcake” by encouraging people to turn them into dartboards, knife racks and doorstops.
Each January, suburbanites on the western outskirts of Colorado Springs have brought their uneaten and unwanted fruitcakes to Memorial Park for the Manitou Springs Fruitcake Toss, a contest to see who can fling a cake the farthest.
“The great fruitcake toss is the event of the winter season,” enthuses the website. “The hapless desert is launched into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devices.” (Don’t believe it? Here’s the video.)
Then there’s Disney’s overlong holiday short for 2017, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, starring a well-meaning but imbecilic snowman schooling himself in holiday traditions. As Slate summed up one of the more memorable moments: “Olaf eats a fruitcake, and it immediately comes out of his butt, still steaming!”
An underground following
No doubt, satire like this offends fruitcake fans. But the prevalence of the jokes, and their tendency to make the love of fruitcake a clandestine affair, conceals the fact that fruitcake actually has a sizable group of loyalists. The numbers don’t lie, and Dale Parker has them.
“We produce 4 million pounds of product,” Parker says. “All of it’s calorie-free—we don’t charge for the calories,” he deadpans.
One assumes Parker’s been trotting that joke out for most of the four decades he’s worked at Claxton. (His father began working at the bakery in 1927 at age 11.) But, one-liners aside, Claxton obviously does serious volume in fruitcake. With a signature cake weighing in at a pound, 4 million pounds of fruitcake baked yearly translates to 4 million fruitcakes. An average baking day, Parker says, will see 86,000 pounds of fruitcake batter moving into the pans. As for what they do with the leftovers, there aren’t any. Claxton moves everything it bakes.
Some foodies may turn their noses up at a big-batch operation like Claxton, but plenty of others don’t. By virtue of its age, its roots in the south and a distribution chain that includes Walmart, Sam’s Club and QVC, the company can count on a long-established customer base that returns year after year knowing exactly what it’s getting.
“The reason why we have been successful retaining our customer base is the fact that our cakes are very predictably consistent,” Parker explains. “They’re 70 percent fruits and nuts by weight. One of the differentiating points between Claxton and a cake you find on the supermarket shelf [is] that company may just take a little bit of pound cake and sprinkle a few fruits and nuts on top. That, to us, is not a true fruitcake.”
The true fruitcake
Generally speaking, fruitcake is a cake that contains nuts and candied fruit, and the more of both the better. Aficionados also point out that the cake needs to be moist (Parker’s standard for Claxton is that you should be able to fold a slice of the cake without it breaking.) However, as is the case with barbecue, chili and jambalaya, there’s no single accepted recipe for the dish, and regional variations dominate—in particular, a tendency for southern fruitcakes to lack alcohol (except for the monastery fruitcakes which, regardless of region, tend to spike things quite well.)
It follows that many fruitcake producers follow a recipe that’s closely guarded, sometimes very closely. For example, until recently, even employees of mail-order house Harry & David didn’t know exactly how its popular Fruitcake Confection ($24.99) was made.
“At one point, the recipe was top secret and only a few people in the organization knew the whole [thing],” says svp of merchandising Greg Sarley. “They would bake it in shifts so that no one person was able to witness it being made from beginning to end.”
Indeed, a secret recipe is also a handy marketing tool, allowing brands to differentiate their cakes from those of competitors. The tactic is especially useful for newcomer brands, which have little hope of achieving the market dominance of a Claxton but are carving out a niche with the growing population of consumers who see fruitcake as a sophisticated addition to the holiday table.
Colleen Sundlie, aka the Date Lady, knows all about this. For a time, she and her husband lived in the Middle East, and her love of dates (and of fruitcake) comes from the Old World.
“Our fruitcake is similar to the English fruitcake,” she says. “We use lots of fruits—half [of the cake] is fruit—and soaked in rum.” In addition to the high-quality ingredients (organic nuts and fruit, cage-free eggs and so on), Date Lady cakes lack the fructose that typically finds its way into many commercial batters. “I think some people might be disappointed [our fruitcake] doesn’t taste like the sugary ones,” Sundlie says.
Asked why it is that she’s seen so much interest in her fruitcake, Sundlie says, “People are just into real food.”
That might also explain the interest in the fruitcakes made by Robert Lambert, who sells his cakes via Zingerman’s as well as his own website. To call Lambert’s fruitcakes artisanal is an understatement. Not only does he candy his own Seville oranges and soak his bergamot and Rangpur lime rinds in cognac, Lambert forages for all his fruit himself, using manicure scissors to snip the calamondins.
“I use exotics that for the most part aren’t commercially available,” Lambert says, “so I’ve staked out sources wherever I can—a tree nursery for yuzu lines, the Gene Lester Collection for bergamots, his neighbor for Meyer lemons, an old tree in a yard in Napa for white grapefruit, which are getting hard to find.”
Lambert’s fruitcakes go for as much as $80 each, and he’s made a name for himself in particular with his Vintage Fruitcake, a small batch of cakes he keeps in his cellar for one year, during which time “the flavor has developed, expanded and become more complex,” according to the site. Hence, 2017 saw a limited-edition offering of fruitcakes made in 2016, and all of them are gone.
“It’s kind of fun redeeming something so maligned,” Lambert says, “because tasting my cake changes minds.”
Still, there will always be holdouts
But even a trainload of Lambert’s fruitcakes probably wouldn’t be enough to win over all those people who still regard fruitcake, to quote the Huffington Post, as “easily the most hated cake in the existence of baking.” And this begs an important question: Even with all the good fruitcake out there, how has the stuff gotten such a bad reputation?
“I don’t know,” says Claxton’s Parker. “I’ve spent my entire life working in this business. I’m 64 years old, and I’ve been here 40 hours, and I’ve dedicated my life to trying to make a product everyone will like. But I guess it’s just impossible.”
“I do have some thoughts on that,” says Zingerman’s Neff-Rasmussen. “The reason [American fruitcake’s] reputation is so bad is that an industrially made fruitcake is not necessarily a super-pleasant-tasting thing to eat. When you’re paying less attention to having high-quality fruits and nuts and combining them with pronounceable ingredients like butter and sugar, not hydrogenated oils and chemicals, that’s a great way to cut costs. But it’s not a great way to make something that tastes really delicious.”
“Like a lot of foods that were originally homemade, [fruitcakes] lost their way and their flavor when they became commercially produced,” he says. “They pretty much deserved the ridicule. Big oversweet chunks of bland fruit barely held together with a thin overspiced batter. Yuck.”
For her part, Isabelle Kyrk, keeper of the Mondo Fruitcake site, has taken to challenging fruitcake haters as to why they hate it, and even they frequently don’t know. “I’d challenge them and say, ‘Well, have you eaten fruitcake?’ And most of the time, they hadn’t,” she says.
But Kyrk remains an optimist, believing the old jokes about fruitcake are feeling more dated with each passing year. People, she says, are changing their attitudes about fruitcake.
“It has definitely been warming up,” she says, “and I think it’s part of the whole wave of the maker movement. People are making their own beers and bacon, and I think fruitcake is going to be next. The Carson joke is starting to fade from memory, and people are revisiting all these things they’d taken for granted and [saying], ‘I can do better.’ I think fruitcake will go that way.”