It's hard to pinpoint the moment that fruitcake became a running holiday joke to Americans. But it was probably sometime between the early 20th century – when commercial mass production of mail order fruitcakes resulted in dry bricks being delivered to people's homes as a last-minute Christmas gift – and the 1960s, when Johnny Carson made his infamous joke on The Tonight Show about how there's only one fruitcake in the world, and it's passed from family to family.
A festive fruitcake — Photo courtesy of iStock / Rawpixel
To be fair, in its classic form, the dessert itself doesn't have many redeeming qualities. Case in point, the fruitcake's density. When it comes to desserts, our palates are accustomed to gooey baked goods and light and airy pastries. We don't expect to bite into something that has the same density as mahogany, which is true for fruitcake according to the Harper's Index.
The fruitcake's longevity also garners laughter. A fruitcake from Robert Scott's expedition in Antarctica was found untouched after 106 years in 'almost' edible condition. What baked good has a shelf life of 106 years?
Today, giving someone a fruitcake is almost as dirty of a joke as sending someone a glitter bomb in the mail. January 3rd is known as Fruitcake Toss Day, where those who have received a fruitcake during the holiday season are publicly encouraged to dispose of the unwanted dessert. The town of Manitou Springs, Colo. has kicked this holiday up a notch by launching fruitcakes into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devices.
View this post on Instagram
But before the last few decades, the fruitcake was considered a noble and celebrated dessert. Romans, who used raisins as currency, medicine and prizes for athletes, are credited with making some of the first fruitcakes. They were more like energy bars made of raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds, held together with barley mash.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans made the fruitcake even more popular by adding honey and spices, along with dried fruits from Portugal and the Mediterranean. But during the 16th century, when sugar prices declined and Caribbean rum was used to soak the fruits, is when fruitcake became legendary across the globe. The introduction of sugar also preserved fruitcake for longer periods of time, allowing fruit to be enjoyed during the long months where tasty treats like raisins or dates were not normally available.
By this point in history, almost every Western European culture had some type of fruitcake, whether it was Italian pannettone or German stollen. By the 1700s, fruitcake was considered so 'sinfully sweet' that England made it illegal to eat during any time that wasn't a wedding, Easter or Christmas.
And by the mid-20th century, the fruitcake became a romantic literary tool used to evoke seasonality in stories like Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," in which he declares "Oh, my, it's fruitcake weather."
Fruitcake doesn't have to be a dry brick — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / sanddebeautheil
Contempt for fruitcake, however, is not a universally held opinion. Many argue that you shouldn't blame the fruitcake, but blame the recipe.
The pop culture ridicule doesn't stop bakers and chefs from experimenting with new takes on the traditional fruitcake recipe. Every year, fruitcake enthusiasts from around the country attempt to make the dessert more palatable to modern tastes, in an effort to elevate the fruitcake back to its status of official holiday dessert.
Some suggest less batter and more fruit for sweetness, while others recommend using a batter that is fluffier to avoid a dense, bread-like consistency. According to The New York Times' test kitchen, the solution to better fruitcake is "showering the cake in whiskey."