Johnny Carson, former host of the The Tonight Show, once joked that fruitcake is so bad that only one exists, and it just keeps getting re-gifted. But before you throw out that dreaded fruitcake from Grandma this Christmas, take a minute to appreciate its rich history, or at least subject it to some scientific investigation.
One of the great mysteries of the decadent dessert, chock-full of neon-glowing fruit, is its ability to keep forever. Jay Leno ate a 125-year-old piece of fruitcake on his show in 2003 and lived to tell about it. In 1941, a fruitcake made by the Kroger Company was purchased in Cincinnati and returned unopened by the original owner 30 years later. The store manager kept it in its original box for an additional 40 years before selling it in on an online auction for $525.
Fruitcake’s density and high sugar content inhibit bacterial growth. The alcohol often added as a curing agent doesn’t hurt, either. It is recommended that fruitcake be made three to four months before it is eaten, and many people prefer to wait a year or two. Fruitcakes improve with age because over time the tannins in the skins of the dried fruits are released, giving the cake a rich flavor, like aged red wine. Strangely, frozen fruitcake is only good for about one year.
Fruitcake has stood the test of time. Archeological finds suggest a primitive form of fruitcake was sometimes placed in Egyptian tombs in preparation for the afterlife. The dessert gained popularity during the Roman Empire when cooks began to incorporate pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and barley mash. Roman soldiers often took fruitcake along when they went off to war because of its longevity. Cooks in England started making the dessert in the 1400s when dried fruits imported from the Mediterranean became available.
Fruitcake became so popular in the 1800s it was outlawed in England because it was considered sinfully rich. It is uncertain how fruitcake became associated with Christmas, but some speculate it began in England as a Christmas Eve tradition. Called “plum porridge,” it was eaten after a day of feasting. The British also reportedly gave pieces of fruitcake to poor women who would carol in the streets at Christmastime.
Fruitcake fell out of favor in the United States when its mass production began in 1913. The mass-produced cakes were thought by many to be heavy, dry, and flavorless.
But the Science Museum of Viriginia in Richmond has found an unconventional use for this dessert as the subject of scientific inquiry.
Each year, the museum hosts a multi-day fruitcake celebration between Christmas and New Year’s Day, complete with a fruitcake helium balloon float in the city’s annual Christmas parade.
The museum subjects its own alcohol-free, family friendly fruitcakes to careful scientific investigation, according to Nancy Tait, the museum’s communication manager. The data collected found that fruitcakes do not float, shatter when quick-frozen with dry ice and then dropped, are good conductors of electricity, and can be ignited with a torch. Museum guests also investigate the aeronautic principles of parachute design when they make their own parachutes and then send a fruitcake skydiving from several flights up the museum’s staircase.
“Fruitcake is a much-maligned pastry, but we believe it has a valuable role to play in the world of science,” Tait said. “We celebrate the pastry by subjecting it to the rigors of scientific testing.”