A Brief History of Fruitcake

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jodiecoston // iStock via Getty Images Plus / jodiecoston // iStock via Getty Images Plus

On January 17, 1912, explorer Robert Falcon Scott almost made history. On that date, he and a small team of explorers completed a harrowing journey to the geographic South Pole. As it turned out, the group wasn’t, as they had hoped, the first to ever arrive at the remote location. A group led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had completed its own expedition to the South Pole just 34 days earlier. Scott’s disappointment in arriving second would prove to be tragically short-lived; on the return journey, he and his entire group succumbed to exposure and starvation.

Of all the artifacts recovered over the years from Scott’s ill-fated expedition, 2017 may have turned up the strangest: a fully intact fruitcake. It was found at an early Antarctic base camp, and historic documents show that Scott had brought the same brand of fruitcake with him on his South Pole sojourn. It was a practical choice for a long trek through uninviting climes. Fruitcake is a calorie-dense food, and it’s resilient—really resilient. The scientists who found Scott’s century-old fruitcake said it was “in excellent condition,” and reportedly looked “almost edible.”

The story of Robert Scott’s long-forgotten fruitcake seems to confirm some of the worst stereotypes about the infamous baked good. But though fruitcake may be the butt of a lot of jokes, there’s a reason it secured its place in our cultural firmament.

Fruitcake Through the Ages

The earliest record of something resembling fruitcake comes from Ancient Rome. Recipes for a confection called satura called for mixing raisins, pomegranate seeds, and pine nuts with barley mash and honeyed wine. It was supposedly a favorite snack of Roman soldiers heading to the battlefield: Its portability and shelf-life were valuable assets. Satura, with its hodgepodge of ingredients, is even thought to be connected to the origin of the word satire, the cutting but humorous literary form the Romans helped create.

A version of fruitcake that more closely resembled what we eat today appeared in the Middle Ages. The Crusades led to an increase in trade between Europe and the Muslim world, and dried fruits imported from the Mediterranean became more common in parts of Europe. People started baking them into their cakes for special occasions. Different countries throughout the continent put their own spin on the dessert. Italy had panforte, which literally translates to “strong bread,” a reference to the recipe’s aggressive spices. Germany produced stollen, a baked good with fruit and nuts that’s more like bread than the cake we’re familiar with here in the States.

Fruitcake vs. Figgy Pudding

Britons were enjoying their own version of fruitcake by the end of the 16th century. And if you’ve ever listened to Christmas music and asked yourself "what the heck is figgy pudding, anyway?" the answer is basically fruitcake, with at least one key difference: Fruitcake is baked, while figgy pudding is shaped into a dome and either boiled or steamed.

In Britain, the word pudding can be used for anything from blood sausages (known as black pudding) to savory baked goods (like Yorkshire puddings). But today the word most commonly refers to any sweet dish eaten at the end of a meal, roughly analogous to dessert here in the states. As for the adjective figgy, some food historians say that in Cornwall, figgy pudding is just a local name for plum pudding. Which, confusingly, usually doesn’t contain plums. It may have originally, but nowadays it’s usually made with raisins or currants. Other food historians point to a recipe in a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master-cooks of King Richard II for Fygey. That dish was made with ground almonds, wine, and figs, and some say it’s an ancestor of figgy pudding. At some point in all of this mess British carolers started singing "Now bring us some figgy pudding" to their wealthy neighbors around Christmastime.

The dish underwent a major change following Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Sugar was suddenly plentiful in the so-called “old world,” and candying fruit became a common preservation method. Candied fruit found its way into plum pudding, and all that added sugar turned the hearty, relatively nutritious cake into a decadent indulgence. And a popular one—in 1748, a Swede visiting England commented “the art of cooking as practised by Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding.” Burn.

Fruitcake and Queen Victoria

We know that fruitcake appeared on Christmas tables shortly after it spread through Europe, but we don’t know exactly how the dish became associated with the holiday. In medieval times, labor-intensive desserts made from fine ingredients tended to be saved for special occasions like holidays, so fruitcake’s connection to Christmas makes sense. During the Victorian Era, when much of the tradition and iconography around Christmas was solidified in pop culture, the connection between fruitcake and Yuletide became even stronger.

The Victorians loved baked fruitcake, and many of them couldn’t wait until the holidays to enjoy it. At the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, guests were served a fruitcake for dessert, a slice of which actually sold at auction in 2016 for 1500 pounds. After Victoria, fruitcakes became the cake of choice for English weddings, though their popularity has waned over time.

At least among the general public. Fruitcake was on the menu at the royal weddings of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981 and Kate Middleton and Prince William in 2011.

So why did Victorians love fruitcake so much? It may have been the booze. They added alcohol to the recipe as a way to preserve the cake and boost its flavor. After the fresh cake has a chance to cool, bakers will wrap it in a cloth soaked in liquor and seal it in an airtight container. Alcohol kills bacteria, as well as any yeast or mold that would otherwise grow on a fruitcake and make it inedible. This process is called denaturation.

The Science Behind Fruitcake

Denaturation can occur for a number of reasons, including changes in temperature or pH. When you cook an egg and the white becomes opaque, for example, it’s because the proteins in the albumen are denaturing. When a protein denatures, the sequence of amino acids comprising the protein remains the same, but its shape changes, sometimes irreversibly so. That changed shape can cause the protein to function differently, and in the case of a living organism like bacteria, it can actually kill the microbe.

When bacteria meets alcohol, one of the things going on is the alcohol denaturing the proteins and stopping cellular function. Denaturation is one of the ways hand sanitizer works, and it’s how fruitcake can last so long without going bad. When it comes to shelf life, it also helps that fruitcake is made with low-moisture ingredients like nuts and dried fruit, giving bacteria less to feed on in the first place.

Some people claim that fruitcake actually gets better with age. The fruit in fruit cake contains bitter flavor compounds, called tannins, which start to mellow out with time. As the cake ages, the bitter flavors are toned down and other complex flavors become more pronounced. This, incidentally, is roughly the same process that happens when wine is aged. So if you want to annoy your family around the holidays, try pointing out the subtle notes of wet earth and oak in your aunt’s fruit cake.

How long does fruitcake last?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mail-order fruit cakes can stay good for up to 6 months in the fridge and up to a year in the freezer. There are a number of variables in play, though—most notably moisture content. We know that Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic fruit cake at least looked edible after chilling for almost 110 years, and there’s evidence that some fruit cakes can last even longer than that.

One family from Michigan has held on to the same fruitcake for 142 years. It was baked by Fidelia Ford in 1878 shortly before she passed away. Her husband decided to keep the cake as a way to remember her, and decades later, the couple’s descendants are still honoring that wish—for the most part. In 2003, they brought the cake on The Tonight Show and allowed Jay Leno to sample a nibble of it in front of a live studio audience. His review: “It needs more time.”

That actually wasn’t the first time fruitcake was memorably skewered by a host of The Tonight Show. Some people credit Johnny Carson for giving it its bad reputation, famously joking that, while fruitcakes seemed to be a perennial gift, nobody ever actually ate them. It’s true that fruitcake may not be the most popular dish on the Christmas table, but that’s no problem—you can always save the leftovers and serve them next year.

This story has been adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.