According to culinary legend, ancient Egyptians created the first version of the fruitcake for placement on the tombs or in the coffins of friends and relatives, perhaps as a food that could survive their journey into the afterlife. If the Egyptians felt the same way I do about fruitcake, they must have thought those friends and relatives were going somewhere other than heaven.
Fruitcake became common in Roman times due to traits that made it perfect for fueling the Roman army. Made from a combination of barley mash, raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds, this early version of fruitcake was a portable, long-lasting, relatively light combat ration. Requiring no preparation, and averse to spoilage, the cake could be shipped around the empire with ease, and became a staple in the legionnaire’s diet. As an energy source it was extremely efficient. Pomegranate seeds pack 234 calories per cup, while raisins provide 435 calories per cup. Both pale in comparison to pine nuts which weigh in at 916 calories per cup. Pretty significant when you consider that nearly two thousand years later, the average Meals Ready to Eat or MRE used in today’s military contains approximately 1,250 calories.
Fruitcake continued to fuel the armies of Europe during the ensuing centuries. The Crusaders also brought the energizing treat along in their packs on their search for the Holy Grail. Their cakes incorporated additional ingredients such as fruits, honey, and spices. It was during this time when the name fruitcake was first used. The cakes became more flexible during this time period as well, with different ingredients being added based on availability and cost. They became heavier than the original versions, continuing to pack a substantial caloric punch.
During the 1400s the British were able to successfully import dried fruits from the Mediterranean, beginning their love affair with the treat.
Cheap sugar arriving in Europe from the colonies in the 16th century contributed to the success of the modern fruitcake. This along with the discovery that soaking fruit in successively greater concentrations of sugar intensified its color and flavor while working as a preservative, led to the proliferation of the fruit-laden cakes. Native fruits could now be conserved, and previously unavailable fruits could be imported in candied form from other parts of the world. Fruitcakes quickly became heavy as lead containing a wide range of dried fruits.
During the 18th century, at the end of the nut harvest, a ceremonial cake was made mixed with nuts from the harvest. The cake was saved until the beginning of the next year’s harvest hoping to secure another successful harvest. Laws were implemented in England limiting the use of plum cake (the term for dried fruit) to Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings, and funerals. It is rumored that Queen Victoria held on to a fruitcake she received on her birthday for a year, as a way of showing moderation during times of decadence. For a period of time, fruitcake was completely outlawed in Europe for being ‘sinfully rich’.
It was customary in England for unmarried wedding guests to place a slice of fruitcake under their pillow at night which would allegedly allow them dream of the person they would marry.
The popularity of fruitcake in the United States took a significant hit when The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson continued to joke that there really was only one fruitcake in the world, passed from family to family. The tradition continued after his death with “The Fruitcake Lady” (Marie Rudisill), who offered her opinions of fruitcake on the show.
There are various theories about how fruitcake became tied to the holiday season. Some believe it is because the bread originated in the Holy Land while others believe it was because English citizens passed out fruitcake slices to the poor women who sang Christmas carols on the streets of London in the late 1700s.
- The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was graced with an ornate multi-tiered fruitcake.
- A properly preserved fruitcake (one covered with an alcohol-soaked cheesecloth and wrapped in plastic or foil) can be kept unrefrigerated for years without spoiling.