September 16, 2019

fruit cake weighs in This holiday staple has a ‘storied’ history, but little respect

Fruitcake is the Al Gore of holiday food. No one really likes it. Few even respect it. No one wants it in the house for the holidays. It’s just kind of there.

The Cobb Manor Center for Original Thought theory of fruitcake holds that there have only been a few dozen made since a drunken Roman mixed raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate (granite?) seeds with some barley mash and put it in the oven. Once he sobered up and saw what he created, he sent the rock-hard result to his very well-despised mother-in-law. She kept the “gift” in her cupboard until the next holiday season when she forwarded it to her very best enemy, an army general, who used it in an early siege of Carthage. The catapulted fruitcake was credited with breaking through a 4-foot wall and won a place in a Rome museum in the ballistic missile section.

It was lent to the Crusaders, who found it to be a fierce weapon against the infidels. It remains in circulation today, in a freezer in Rehobeth, Mass.

In the Middle Ages, a demented peasant found dried fruit that had been left in a well for several centuries. He mixed them with spices and honey and added them to bread dough that was too old and too hard for anything else. He baked the mixture and gave the end product to his hated wife, Dementia, who also was too old and hard for anything else. She, of course, would not touch the invention and passed it on to her enemies, an event that was widely believed to bring on the “Dark Ages.”

Queen Victoria, legend has it, received a fruitcake for her birthday and kept it until the following year as a gesture of restraint, moderation and good taste.

Yeah, right.

Sir Francis Drake (no relation to Drake’s Cakes) got into the act during his “famous journey” on Christmas 1579 when he allegedly stopped at the island of Ternate where King Babu passed on a few fruitcakes that had been sitting around since the last white man dropped in for a drink.

Drake wrote, “Accordingly, we received what was there to be had … an imperfect liquid sugar, a fruit … cocoes … and a kind of meal … whereof they made a kinde of cake which keeps good at least 10 years. Of this last, we made the greatest quality of our provisions,” according to “The World Encompassed.” Records show that Drake never returned to Ternate Island.

The mail-order fruitcake business started in America when Ringling Brothers Circus visited Corsicana, Texas, in 1913. A local bakery had adopted a recipe from German immigrants for a tough little item they called fruitcake. Circus executives found that the fruitcake bore a striking resemblance to dried elephant and hippo droppings. They packaged the droppings masquerading as a food group and sent them to customers across the country who refused to pay their circus bills.

The Cobb Manor theory holds that these same fruitcakes are being passed around today, along with a few new ones baked by people who lack the temperament or lack of morals for actual homicide. Those unfortunates who receive these “gifts” never eat them, but simply pack them in the back of the freezer with July’s barbecue sauce and wait for the holiday season to pass it on to their least favorite relative (I have several).

Around the world, various orders of monks labor away making fruitcakes to get even with a world that enjoys MTV, HBO, VCRs, VDTs and the Playboy Channel.

The legend is that if fruitcake is kept in an airtight container and basted occasionally with liquor, it will keep indefinitely. Sounds like my cousin, Jerry.

It’s not like fruitcakes have no use. The appreciative citizens of Manatee Springs, Colo., stage a fruitcake toss each year, just after the holidays. The winner gets to rid himself of his fruitcake. So do the losers.

“Enough,” cries James Howard.

Howard runs Howard’s Bakery of Vassalboro, which specializes in doughnuts most of the year and fruitcakes during the holiday season. Howard is at a loss to understand the bad rap on fruitcake for the past few centuries.

“I love fruitcake. I don’t know what the problem is. Some people try to cheapen it up with oils and fillers and cut back on the fruit. Plus, you have to cook it slow, an hour or 90 minutes,” he said.

At the Vassalboro bakery, the fruitcake process takes a week. First the raisins are soaked in rum for several days. Then the other ingredients are added and allowed to settle before cooking. The cakes are allowed to cool, then are covered with an apricot glaze and sit another day. Only then are the cakes packaged and sent to hundreds of customers from coast to coast. “I think we have sent them to every state in the Union,” he said.

Howard brags that his $15.50 Mountain Cran-Chee with cranberries, cherries and pecans and the Mount Katahdin Blue Cake with blueberries and fancy pecans are as good as it gets. The two-pound sampler pack is $22.50.

Howard considered it his special place on Earth to break down the fear of fruitcake. “I would like to have anyone try our fruitcake then say they don’t like it. I think ours is as good as anyone’s. I give it to so many friends that I have to cut back this year,” he said.

But even Howard, the apostle of fruitcake, admits he has a friend who will not eat the cake. “He passes it on to someone else, each year.”

Just like the rest of us.

Howard’s Bakery can be reached at or at 207-426-7419.

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