Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fruitcake: Ancient Traditions

Another paper I wrote for class.  Both this and the cornbread paper got perfect grades!  Pretty exciting for me.

When most people nowadays hear the word “fruitcake”, an unfortunate warning image pops into their imagination: a heavy, bricklike loaf, sticky and sickly sweet, thickly dotted with unrecognizable, unnaturally brightly colored particles which the manufacturer insists are bits of fruit. This is an image not even necessarily that our frightened consumer has experienced firsthand, but more likely one that has been planted by comedians or perhaps an acquaintance who had one bad fruitcake experience and was scarred for life. How unfortunate that this is the case, as a properly made fruitcake is a treat well worth having: crumbly with dried fruit, filled with aromatic spices, soaked in spirits, and absolutely perfect when paired with clotted cream and hot coffee. Why should such a classic dessert be allowed to become so vilified? Especially one with such an ancient tradition: not many baked items play such an important part in so many different cultural celebrations. The fruitcake was a cultural icon long before becoming a joke.

The first known item resembling a fruitcake came about in ancient Roman times, making its appearance as an item much more closely resembling modern granola bars than what we now call fruitcake. The structure of this early “fruitcake” was especially practical for long journeys into battle or crusades, as its lack of moisture yet high protein meant the item would keep for long periods of time while being a nutritious, portable snack. It was not until the Middle Ages that the fruitcake began to evolve into our modern version; the addition of sweeteners, preserved fruits and spices also elevated the cake to an expensive, special-occasion treat. (Wikipedia, Dorfman)

Since its inception, this confection has evolved into many incarnations – sweet and savory, meal accompaniment and dessert – and is a star player in native dishes of many different cultures, in Europe, the Caribbean and, of course, the United States. In Italy, panettone and panforte remain as very popular fruitcake variations. One cannot venture to the Caribbean without seeing fruit and rum cakes at any grocery or souvenir shop. It was only in the early part of the 20th century in America when a manufacturer chose to add crystallized fruits and candies to their recipe, establishing what most people now think of when they hear the word “fruitcake”. (Wikipedia, Dorfman)

Even more interesting than the evolution of this confection through the centuries is its cultural use in rituals and celebrations. Of course, the use of the fruits and spices in ancient periods made fruitcake too expensive for use as an everyday table item, and that alone could be enough to have it set aside as a “special occasion” treat. That helped make fruitcake the perfect candidate for use as a wedding cake; it remains a traditional wedding cake in some parts of the world. It often serves as the top tier on a stacked cake, as it keeps well and is therefore perfect to be saved until the couple’s first anniversary. Alternately, it has another traditional use as the groom’s cake. Unmarried wedding guests were encouraged to take home a slice of the cake; it was said that if they placed the cake underneath their pillow before going to bed that night, they would dream of the person that they would eventually marry.

But of course, the celebration fruitcake is most associated with is the winter holiday that we now refer to as Christmas. The ancient traditions held deeply to the idea of using symbolism in not just their celebrations, but their everyday life, and the fruitcake is no different. Aside from the aforementioned expense making this confection best saved for such an important holiday, the use of out-of-season fruits symbolizes the promise of the eventual return to spring, an important feature in the original celebration of the winter solstice. The solstice eventually birthed the holidays of Sacaea, Saturnalia, and Yule, which were eventually overshadowed by Christmas once the Christians reached England. The cakes are traditionally make weeks in advance and allowed to age, which adds to their flavor, but also makes for a more convenient preparation as there is less last-minute work. (Candlegrove)

The fruitcake method is also interesting when looked at from a cultural and historical perspective. This cake is generally very dense, thick with preserved fruit and liberally coated in alcohol; none of this happened by chance. The dense structure of the fruitcake is a product of baking for a very long time at a low temperature, which is tailored to the method of baking at the time it was created: very rarely did families have access to anything resembling our modern ovens, instead needing to create a product that could be baked on a hearth next to a fire. The lengthy baking time helps to make the cake into a heavy, solid mass, and leaves it without an excess of moisture present after baking while also ensuring that the fruits and sugars caramelize but do not burn. The lack of moisture is also important to the integrity of the cake: as mentioned in the previous section, a fruitcake should traditionally be aged a minimum of one week to reach its full flavor potential. It is even rumored that Queen Victoria waited an entire year before eating a fruitcake because she believed it “showed restraint” (Dorfman). The density and dryness of the cake, the high presence of sweetener, and the frequent basting with a strong liquor such as brandy, rum or whiskey means that the fruitcake will not spoil or mold during the ageing process. Modern methods such as artificial preservatives and airtight packaging allow for commercially manufactured cakes to last longer on the shelf without close monitoring of these factors or even omissions and substitutions, such as no liquor or the use of less or artificial sweeteners.

The journey of fruitcake is truly a fascinating one. Studying it, unfortunately, does nothing to alter the current societal prejudice against this treat. Even I, when I bake my Christmas fruitcakes, make them in cupcake pans and refer to them as “fruity, nutty muffins”, which manages to convince people to try them, after which they at least somewhat understand the appeal. The fruitcake is a tradition that should not be forgotten.

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