The Fruitcake and You

12.15.10 | Cecil Van Houten | Comments[10]

First, this isn’t a piece about Charles Nelson Reilly.  And for those of you under the age of 40 who don’t know who Charles Nelson Reilly is, never mind. 

No, this missive is about that lowliest of holiday fare, the mysterious combination of flour, nuts, currants and dried citrus known as the fruitcake.  Why is the fruitcake the object of such derision?  For many good, logical reasons.  First, it doesn’t fit in any of the six main food groups.  In fact, it’s a stretch to even call it food.  Food is eaten; fruitcakes are disposed of discreetly or passed along to people you don’t like.  Fruitcake is odd; what other product can be found in both aisle 9 at Wegman’s (“Seasonal Food”) and aisle 16 at Lowe’s (“Doorstops”).  And there’s a reason they come in those tightly-sealed metal tins – just like rat poison and paint thinner.

To put the fruitcake in perspective, one must realize its long and inglorious past.  Some of the earliest writings of the church fathers, like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, make reference to fruitcake.  From Martyr’s ‘First Apology’, “Thou shalt not eat the fruitcake, nor taste of its bitter cloves.  Passeth the fruitcake to your children and your children’s children and thou shalt remove the curse from your household.”  You can’t make this stuff up.

The fruitcake has also played an integral part in world history.  Many people do not realize that Genghis Khan set out originally to be a chef.  Were it not for the fruitcake his mother gave him to eat on the long horse rides to and from culinary school, Genghis might have opened a Mongolian barbecue restaurant or had his own show on Food Network.  Instead, he became cranky and embittered and invaded and conquered most of central Asia and China.

Another little-known historical fact:  two years before his assassination at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln narrowly avoided a would-be assassin’s bullet while visiting Betty Lou’s Bake Shop in Georgetown.  A fruitcake Betty Lou was showing the President deflected the bullet, causing it to ricochet around the shop until it lodged harmlessly in a chocolate chunk soufflé.       

The origin of the destructive power behind the atomic bomb was, in fact, the fruitcake.  While sitting at his kitchen table late one night in 1936, Hans Bethe, a German physicist, was contemplating what to do with the fruitcake his mother-in-law had given him for Christmas.  “What would it take to blow this thing apart?” he wondered.  He retreated to his laboratory and six months later delivered the designs for the first nuclear weapon.  Years later, his son, Leopold, recounted his father’s determination.  “Papa always said the bomb couldn’t just destroy civilization; it had to be able to destroy the obstkuchen (fruitcake).”

More recently, fruitcake played an important scientific role in NASA’s manned flights to the moon.  In order to study the effects of a zero-gravity environment on various objects, a fruitcake (unconfirmed reports say it may possibly have been the same one from Betty Lou’s Bake Shop) was brought to the lunar surface by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Their analysis was inconclusive however they did indicate a strange similarity between the texture of moon rocks and the fruitcake.  Unfortunately, the fruitcake drifted away from Aldrin’s grasp and floated into space, later to be designated by NASA as US-SJ-2421, one of the more than 19,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the earth.  Further details remain classified.  

Today, fruitcakes are available in supermarkets, specialty stores, small kiosks at the mall during the holidays and online.  The practice of giving fruitcakes as gifts, much like the practice of performing lobotomies to remedy psychiatric conditions, has fallen in disfavor.  Still, they can be found at the bottom of bedroom closets, under beds covered with dust bunnies (don’t worry, they actually enhance the flavor) and on those all but forgotten shelves in the far reaches of the basement, next to half-empty cans of paint and that pair of hedge trimmers that died in 1987. 

Speaking of online, the Harry & David website, known for their Royal Riviera pears and fancy gift baskets, sells several varieties of fruitcake without so much as an FDA warning or a disclaimer that they’re not really meant to be eaten.  Here’s one helpful customer review:  “Gave a 1 lb. traditional fruitcake as a Christmas gift to a family member. I never particularly cared for this family member, especially after my cat experienced a nasty rash following a week’s visit when I had to go to Cleveland on business, but that’s water over the dam.  Still I couldn’t stifle a small smile as she attempted to cut through the hardened mass of dense, heavy cake, nuts and fruit.  As she lifted the first forkful I almost stopped her…almost.  She took the bite in her mouth and attempted to chew it while smiling politely.  The first crunch I heard wasn’t a walnut; it was one of her crowns dislodging from the tooth it had been attached to.  I wasn’t sure if she was going to swallow or not – I’ve never actually seen anyone eat a slice of fruitcake – and she didn’t, instead trying to delicately spit it out into a napkin and excuse herself to the kitchen to pick through the mess to find the newly emancipated crown.  Thanks, Harry & David…it was a memorable experience.”   

I’ve only had one personal encounter with a fruitcake.  My sainted Aunt Dorothy, who, the more I think about her actually had a pretty mean streak, always invited our family to join her and my Uncle Morrison for dinner on New Year’s Day.  Aunt Dorothy was best known in our family for her toxic turkey stuffing.  I’m not kidding.  When dinner was ready, we’d sit around the dining room table, the turkey on a large platter front and center, and Aunt Dorothy would poke into the bird with salad tongs and pull out wad after wad of dark brown fibrous material.  It reminded me of the wet, decomposed gunk you pull out of your gutters when you clean them.  But I digress.  One year - I think I was 13 or 14 - I sat down to dinner and next to the turkey was a fruitcake.  I’d seen them and heard about them but had never encountered one up close.  I eyed it suspiciously.  It was already cut in slices, no doubt a tribute to my uncle’s skill with his Craftsman band saw.  Before I knew what had happened, my aunt put a slice on my plate next to the turkey and alleged stuffing and said in that smarmy voice, like June Cleaver on ‘Leave It To Beaver’, “Now eat it all.”  It was an ominous start to the new year.    

So where does the fruitcake stand today?  Let’s look at the context.  We live in a plastic society that long ago blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular.  Drive through any neighborhood and you’ll see houses covered in garish LED lights that make it look like Walt Disney threw up on the front porch.  Within the same front yard you’ll see an inflatable nativity scene, Santa Claus, Snoopy, Rudolph and giant snowmen rocking back and forth in the wind in an eerie Christmas waltz.  Google “inflatable baby Jesus” and you’ll get 115,000 results.  And against all the commercialism and religious hypocrisy there sits the lowly fruitcake, alone and unwanted, a symbol of a bygone era.  But don’t mourn the fruitcake – it’s not going anywhere.  It will be right where you left it, under that blanket in the trunk of your sister’s Toyota next Christmas. 

P.S.  Here’s a holiday travel tip.  Fruitcakes are banned from airplanes so don’t try to take one through airport security.  They don’t x-ray well and the fact that you are so emphatic that it’s a gift for your Aunt Lucy in Denver (“yeah, right, like your Aunt Lucy wants a fruitcake”) won’t go well with the TSA.   You’ll go from an enhanced pat-down to the terrorist watch list faster than you can say, “Happy Holidays”.  Not that you would.


Your Comments(please keep them on topic and polite)

on 12.17.10 Bill Kamberg commented

I'm guessin' - - just guessin' that you are not a great fan of fruitcake, Cecil. Your command of descriptive writing ranks right up there with your incredible talent on the keyboard. Thanks for the chuckle. Hope you and yor family have a very Merry Christmas - fruitcake or no.


Bill Kamberg

on 12.20.10 Mark A. Sam commented

I don't understand the reference to Charles Nelson Reilly.

on 12.20.10 Heather B. commented

This is hilarious! I laughed and laughed. I have only tried fruitcake once and it was so bad I couldn't swallow it. Thanks for having some fun and making me laugh. Merry Christmas!

on 12.20.10 Brett commented

I actually had a fruitcake that wasn't bad when I was stationed in Hawaii. It had some mix of fruit and pineapple in it that made it more tasty and less chewy than the ones I've had before. My grandma made fruitcake and I always took my piece and went out the back door of the kitchen and fed it to their dog. Thanks for your blog. Hope you and your family and everyone at FLN has a Merry Christmas.

on 12.21.10 Russ Thomas commented

Too funny! I'm sending this to my entire family. Are fruitcakes really banned on airplanes?

on 12.22.10 Linda R. commented

I love your writing, Cecil! Too hilarious! And, yes, I remember Charles Nelson Reilly, and M*A*S*H*! My mother-in-law made the best fruitcake in the world! Perhaps I'm the only one reading this who actually loves fruitcake; but, alas! can taste it no more since I must now eat strictly gluten and sugar free :(

on 12.22.10 Linda R. commented

I love your writing, Cecil! Too hilarious! And, yes, I remember Charles Nelson Reilly, and M*A*S*H*! My mother-in-law made the best fruitcake in the world! Perhaps I'm the only one reading this who actually loves fruitcake; but, alas! can taste it no more since I must now eat strictly gluten and sugar free :(

on 12.22.10 Julie G. commented

Hi Cecil. This is really funny. I am going to read the part about the church fathers to my Sunday school class, they're teenagers, and see what they think. Enjoy you on the air and your blogs. Hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

on 12.25.10 Walt T. commented

Listening to the online stream and looking around the website, came across this. Very funny. Praying everyone at Family Life has a special Christmas. Thanks for the music and the laugh. Merry Christmas.

on 12.28.10 Wanda commented

I was listening to the "pokes" on fruit cake, and a queery was, what it was made of seeing as it lasts as long as it does? Well, it's because it is doused with alcohol, more specifically brandy . That is the preservative....hick