Family recipes are inherited like sepia photos of relatives who passed long ago, meant to savor the memories. None is more precious to me that a fruit cake. My last edition came out of the oven months before Christmas and has gently ripened from injections with high spirits (pictured).
But if someone calls you an ‘old fruitcake’, don’t consider it a compliment. They mean you are ‘as nutty as a fruitcake’, to coin another British expression. I plead that you don’t slur the venerable comfort food invented by an unsung hero in some baronial kitchen in the Middle Ages.
It is food with immense calorific value that nourishes the heart. If Captain Scott had not left his fruitcake behind at base camp in 1910, he might have brought his team safely home from the South Pole. The cake was rediscovered a few years ago and reburied in the ice with solemn ritual, so that others will find it when Antarctica thaws. It stands beside honey as one of the least perishable foods, owing to a high sugar and alcohol content and low moisture. NASA will surely provision it for the first manned flight to Mars.
But don’t confuse the British cake with faint-hearted European versions, called stollen and panettone. The trappist monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky sell a cake that’s a better imitation, but it still falls short of the original and what would qualify as a severe challenge for finalists in the Great British Baking Show.
I hear fruitcake virgins ask what’s so special in the recipe? I reply: hardly anything is left out. Flour from Canada, Sugar from the Barbados, Butter from Ireland, Oranges from Florida or Australia, Brandy from France, Eggs from New Hampshire, Raisons, Prunes, Apricots, and Walnuts from California, Cranberries from Wisconsin, Hazelnuts from Oregon or Turkey, Nutmeg and Allspice from Indonesia or Grenada, and Glace Cherries from Italy (or the Red Planet).
Not convinced? You think less is more? Then, you don’t get the point.
The cake is a model of a world as it should be at Christmas and always. Its ingredients come from everywhere—Red states and Blue, North and South, Western countries and Eastern—all blended to create a compatible whole and so innocent it might have been imagined in the Eden of Bakery. Oh, that human society was as united and proud to be called a fruitcake. Sadly, Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show was correct when he quipped, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Humanity rejects the gift.