Grim's Grub: A Christmas tradition, traditionally mocked

The origins of this Christmas cake are tied to food preservation history

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

I think long before I ever tasted it, I had seen countless iterations of the same joke on television: a lone, shunted fruitcake that keeps getting regifted, often for years on end with someone finally making the misstep of accidentally gifting that original fruitcake back to the original fruitcake baker.

That joke seems like it could be as old as the fruitcake itself.

Smithsonian Magazine wrote that Johnny Carson once joked there was only one fruitcake ever made, and the entire world keeps passing it around. There is even an event in Colorado where people use literal catapults to toss them away.

I, for one, don't think fruitcakes are that bad. Surprisingly, like many so-so foods, I even occasionally have a craving for it just to remind me what it's like.

If Carson was right, however, then when was that original fruitcake made? Some say the Romans made fruitcake, but records suggest their version more resembled an energy bar of barley, pomegranate, nuts and raisins (sounds like a Kind bar). However, the cake Carson was talking about was originally baked in the Middle Ages.


As with all recipes, fruitcake was born of availability and culture. At the time, there were advances in both food preservation and a sweet fruit trade, which came from mastering the art of candied and dried fruits, without which fruitcake could not be.

In that time, however, it is unlikely that actual sugar was used in the baking process, but honey instead. Apiarists were the source of much of mid to northern Europe's sweeteners. Between the honey and the dried fruits, you can bet it would have been hard to resist eating the original fruitcake.

It was not only sweet and loaded with coveted fruits and spices, but it would have been an expensive dish. It was still somewhat the closest thing to a Power Bar available, and hunters carried them as food as something both nutritious and long lasting.

Around the 18th century there were trends of self denial that led to fruitcake getting a makeover. Use of butter and sugar in making fruitcakes was banned for nearly a century in much of Europe because, combined with the alcohol that makes them so long lasting, they were considered "sinfully rich" by religious leaders.

It was Queen Victoria who ended the restrictions on fruitcake first (so that she could enjoy a slice with her tea each day), followed by other countries.

Other countries have different names and variations for fruitcake. Even in England it was commonly called plum cake. In Germany they enjoy a more bread-like loaf called "stollen," which is buttered and covered in powdered sugar. In Italy they use spicier ingredients and call it "panforte." The Caribbeans have "black cake," which, naturally, has more rum and fruits.

It is the combination of alcohol and sugar that gives fruitcake its long shelf life. There are many recipes out there that require the cake to be made a year in advance so the alcohol and fruits can mingle. Some such cakes are still safe to eat after 25 years.

A family in Tecumseh, Michigan, has a tradition of passing down among the family a single fruitcake that was baked in 1878 by then-matriarch Fidelia Ford, who died before being able to cut into the cake.


Needless to say, this normally dense dish has hardened to the consistency of a rock, which will not be eaten any time soon. But it looks, surprisingly, like a fruitcake that could have been baked more recently. I guess, in a way, Johnny Carson had a point.


From The Country Gentleman, Dec. 14, 1912

This recipe may be best if cut in half or thirds

  • 1 pound butter
  • 1 pound light brown sugar
  • 10 large eggs
  • 1 pound flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon mace
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 pound candied cherries
  • 1 pound sultana (white) raisins
  • 1 pound seeded raisins
  • 2 pounds currants
  • 1 pound blanched sliced almonds
  • 1 pound of citron, chopped
  • 1 pound candied pineapple, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of molasses
  • Rind and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon
  • 1 cup of grape juice.

Sift the flour twice, then add the soda, salt, spices, grated fruit rind, nuts and fruit. Stir well to distribute the flour.
Cream the butter until very light. Add the sugar gradually, beating constantly. Then beat the eggs until very light before adding them a little at a time to the creamed butter and sugar. If the mixture seems to curdle, add a little flour and mix.

Next, add the molasses, flour, salt, soda, spices and fruit, beating thoroughly. Finally, add the fruit juices. Line a cake pan (or two or more pans) with parchment paper and grease the paper with oil or nonstick spray. Pour in the cake batter and allow to sit overnight to "ripen" before steaming, then baking.

Cover the cake pan(s) with aluminum foil. Prepare a large Dutch oven by placing it over medium heat with 8 cups of water boiling. Place an inverted, empty baking pan in the water, then place the cake pan on top of it. Cover the Dutch oven and steam for 1 1/2 hours. You may also bake this an additional 30-60 minutes to dry out the cake slightly.

Remove to a cooling rack and ice after it has cooled.


Royal Icing

  • 1 egg white (or 2 teaspoons meringue powder and 2 tablespoons water)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Place the egg white in a bowl and add the sugar slowly, beating constantly, then follow with the lemon juice. Spread this on your cake.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Fruit cake loaf with icing.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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