Fruitcake has a bad rep. It’s hard to think of another food, aside from broccoli, that’s on the receiving end of as much open derision as fruitcake gets. This isn’t just an exaggeration. Fruitcake hate is such a common media trope that it has references for its references.
Doechii, a rapper who blew up on TikTok for the “Doechi, why don’t you introduce yourself to the class?” sound can thank her song Yucky Blucky Fruitcake for that. The song’s title is a reference to a Junie B. Jones children’s book of the same name that features Junie cringing away as she holds a fruitcake.
But it wasn’t always this way. Just a couple of centuries ago, fruitcake was the cake of kings and nobles, gracing the dining tables of the powerful and wealthy. Today, it’s still served at British royal weddings, a tradition that stretches as far back as the Middle Ages according to Food & Wine.
So let’s not start with why everybody hates fruitcake now, let’s start with why everybody knows what a fruitcake is. A dish this ubiquitous just has to have a history as rich as every bite of it.
A History of the Not-So-Humble Fruitcake
Fruitcake is ancient and it has its ingredient list to thank for that. The dense, alcohol-laden cake can last for months, sometimes even years, without spoiling because of its low water and sugar content. Its oldest iteration was the Roman satura, an energy bar-like bread that functioned as an ancient MRE for Roman legionnaires. It was made of pine nuts, raisins, barley mash, pomegranate seeds, and honeyed wine. While that may sound a little unappetizing and, frankly, too dry, the calorie-dense, hard-to-spoil satura gave Roman soldiers the energy to fight in campaigns all throughout Europe and the Near East.
Maybe they got sick of it after a while and started trading it with locals or maybe just seeing them was enough to give locals ideas because variations of satura began to crop up in Roman territories as far away as Germany.
When the Roman Empire fell, her daughters in Europe started putting more elaborate twists on the fruitcake. It would emerge again in the Middle Ages with a new, and very expensive ingredient: nutmeg.
Modern fruitcake recipes incorporate nutmeg without a second thought, but during the Middle Ages, a cake made with nutmeg was a way of telling all the other lords, ladies, and knights that your family was loaded. Nutmeg was not native to the Western world. Its original home was Indonesia, so nutmeg had to be brought to Europe through a very long telephone game of spice trading. Nutmeg that came from Indonesia likely made its way to the Indian subcontinent where it would be purchased by Indian merchants who would then trade these spices with countries in the Near East such as Egypt. Middle Eastern merchants would take it from there and sell the spices to European traders.
This was before the modern global logistics network and, obviously, before steamships and planes. A pinch of nutmeg was easily hundreds of hours of farm work, refinement, and travel. By the time it got to the kitchens of Europe’s wealthiest families, a pound of nutmeg could cost as much as a cow.
An Italian version of fruitcake appears in Libro Novo, a book published in Venice in the 16th century. In it, the author talks about how “to make mostazzoli of sugar”. The recipe doesn’t actually use sugar, which was also expensive at the time, but honey.
The recipe goes: “Take three pounds of candied citron cut very finely, five pounds skimmed honey, five eights of an ounce of pepper, one scruple of saffron, three quarters of an ounce of cinnamon, three grains of musk, and enough flour that it will hold all these together. Make the Mostazzoli large or small as you would like them to be. You will bake them as you would pampapati.”
As expected of medieval cuisine, there’s not a lot of instructions. We’re actually lucky to even get measurements as most old recipe books of the era do not give exact measurements and may leave out minor ingredients.
The expensive fruitcake cemented a spot in major celebrations. It would be served for Christmas, as it is now, but also Christenings and weddings. By the Victorian era, fruitcake had become a big enough name that it was the go-to cake flavor of the British royal family.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on February 10, 1840, they brought out a 300-pound fruitcake for breakfast. Aside from the sumptuousness of the fruitcake, it was also chosen for its longevity. A wedding reception like theirs would mean a lot of leftovers and since this is still the 1800s, not enough refrigeration.
The royal fruitcake could be cut up and placed in boxes to be taken home by guests as a souvenir. This tradition continued on with Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, who had a nine-foot-tall fruit cake for her wedding. Princess Diana and her son, Prince William, also had fruitcake for their weddings. The longstanding tradition was only broken at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle which featured a lemon elderflower cake.
With such an illustrious history, fruitcake was set to be everybody’s forever Christmas darling, but the cake has lost popularity.
So Why Do We Hate Fruitcake Now?
Food is a matter of personal tastes, but in the case of fruitcake, those tastes changed drastically for the public in ways that didn’t favor it. Again, fruitcake is ancient and somewhere along the way from satura to today, our idea of cake has evolved to encompass a dessert that’s rich and moist or airy and soft. Compare this to older concepts of cake that were basically “bread but make it sweet”.
Aside from changing tastes, you have inferior quality to blame. If you’ve received fruitcakes before and actually ate them then wondered why some sucked so bad while the others were pretty tasty, that’s because fruitcake is hard to mass produce while maintaining quality. Traditional fruitcake requires that you soak it in rum and/or brandy and use quality dried fruits. With mass-produced, grocery store fruitcake, you’re lucky to get a few jiggers of alcohol and candied maraschino cherries.
There’s no guarantee of great fruitcake if you make it at home either. The cake is so dense that it’s easy to end up with a dry, hard fruitcake. Some bakers get around this by soaking their fruits before adding them to the fruitcake to make sure that there’s enough moisture for the fruitcake to be cake, not a fruity granola bar.
If that’s still not enough to change your mind about fruitcake, you can try fruitcake’s cousins instead.
Redeeming the Fruitcake With A Recipe That’s Actually Good
The bad thing about an ancient recipe is that it’s too unsuited to modern tastes. The great thing about it is it likely has an iteration in another part of the world that you’ll love. The U.S. and U.K. versions of fruitcake may not seem so appetizing, but panettone, a fluffy Italian fruitcake made of raisins, almonds, and citrus, may just change your mind on fruit-packed cake and bread.
For fans of sponge cake, there’s crema de fruta from the Philippines which is made up of sponge cake, whipped cream, custard, and tropical fruits. Alternatively, you can try the 1950s Pineapple Upside Down Cake that keeps the richness and denseness of classic fruitcake without the cloying sweetness and weird textures many of us dislike so much.