Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Winter Hiatus

To all,

Please excuse this minor recess during the month of December, as I have found myself enveloped in an affectionate engagement with studies. I shall return, a changed man, slightly after the midpoint of this month. In the meantime, keep warm and eat well.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fruitcake: The Food that Defies Time, Logic and Taste Buds

In a city where restaurants come and go – where good chefs fail as dismal ones prevail - its intriguing to compare this capricious flow to the traditions of Christmas. Quite the odd juxtaposition I’ll admit, but why is that we’re all so fickle towards restaurants while the existence of traditions like fruitcake prevail? Do we really have our priorities set straight?

The holiday season is filled with tradition and obligatory foods galore. Imagine Hanukkah without latkes - or Christmas Eve without Santa’s milk and cookies. What would the season be like without the imperative eggnog? Isn’t that what this season is all about, giving gifts and giving in to sweets, fats, extra pounds and presents?

Fruitcake for one, tops the list of them all. Just the other day, all I had to do was utter the word and I was blessed with quite the lovely response. “Ah, the piece of shit with green cherries and stuff, death in the form of a brick,” uttered my dear friend. Oh, such a wise and intellectual description.

In the newsroom, a fellow writer was quick to dismiss the attraction of fruitcake, “Fruitcake is horrible, has no culinary value and I’m pretty sure there are no such thing as green cherries in nature.” I got the message: people don’t dig green cherries.

Despite this present day disparagement, in the Middle Ages, society seemed to enjoy fruitcake in masochistic ways. 13th century Britain discovered the use of dried fruits, arriving from Portugal and the east Mediterranean. Rich fruitcakes were then made; inspiring traditional recipes like the Scottish Black Bun that incorporates raisins, currants and almonds baked into a spiced batter. These were then consumed, usually, on Hogmanay, the last day of the year.

By the 16th century, the presence of sugar found its way into fruitcake recipes as a result of an excess of preserved fruits. Cut by the loaf, then pounded and sieved, the sugar was used to intensify the color and flavor of plums, dates and cherries through a soaking process. As these recipes evolved, the process became even more arduous. Eggs were commonly beaten for half an hour, yeast had to be taken from fermenting beer and inconsistent wood-fired ovens were used to bake the cakes.

Embraced by European farmers in the 1700s, it became a symbol of good luck. Baked at the end of the nut harvest, fruitcakes were saved for consumption until the next year, in hopes that the new picking would be just as successful. However, just as they became harvest happy with the hoes, fruitcake was outlawed throughout Continental Europe. Seen as a sign of decadence, the “sinfully rich plum cakes” didn’t re-emerge until the mid 1800s, when the Victorian Era declared them a necessity at teatime.

Over in America, the sugar soaked plague didn’t pop up until the late 1800s. Down in Corsicana, Texas, the Collin Street Bakery opened up in 1896, thanks to German immigrant Gus Weidmann. From there, a tradition was built when guests asked to send the cakes back to Europe as Christmas gifts. Just a decade later, fellow fruitcake fanatic Savino Tos opened Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Thus, the saccharine spate had begun, infiltrating its way across the country.

However, sometime between then and now, the fruit cake allure was lost. Amidst the glacé fruit, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, Yellow 5 and artificial flavors, it’s bewildering to think men like Johnny Carson would deem fruit cake the “worst gift to give,” and that “there’s only one in the world that people pass on to each other.” Author Robert E. Bear, in his short essay, “The Ignoble Fruitcake,” notes how “it has long fooled people with the illusion of being palatable,” and eaten only by “vamfruitcakers.”

Sadly, there seems little hope for fruitcake. The battle to defend its lack of nutritional value, freakishly long shelf life and pariah status within the culinary community is a fruitless one. Unlike its lighter and more edible Italian cousin panettone, or the far less cloying and humble stollen, originally from Germany, fruitcake has merely become fodder for Christmas jokes.

Yet in light of all the criticism, some brave souls have stood up for its survival. The Fruitcake Lady, best known for her segments on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and as the aunt of Truman Capote, brought attention to the subject in a rather peculiar way. First appearing on the show to advertise her cookbook, Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook, the subject took on an almost novelty appeal. Though she didn’t exactly revitalize a national embracement, fruitcake found its way back into the American eye.

Maybe mankind just can’t get enough of it. If they can’t eat it, they might as well beat it - for all its worth and functionality. It’s been known to work as a wonderful doorstop, a hostile threat during gift giving and substitute for bricklayers. Junie B. Jones, a fictional character by author Barbara Park, uses the “brownish and sickish” thing as a booster seat. In the story, daddy even notes, “If you ever get sick of it, you just put a bow on it. And you give it to someone you hate for Christmas.”

These snide if not jeering remarks, are they waggish little quips? Maybe a closeted denial of allure? It seems that no matter how much we hate it, we love it. Unlike the erratic hype and trends of New York’s restaurant culture, fruitcake remains a stronghold of tradition. Not because its the flavor du jour, but because it’s the exact opposite of that. It’s a staple of history, an inspiration for celebration and the reason our country actually hosts an annual Great Fruitcake Toss.

If we forgot about it, we’d have nothing to poke fun at. Like a dying species in need of safekeeping, the fruitcake is our Dodo bird of the culinary world. It’s rather useless, kind of ugly but oh so amusing. Without fruitcake in our lives, what else would you send to your worst relatives?

Dare to Keep the Tradition Alive?
Collin Street Bakery
DeLuxe Fruit Cake, $21.85

Claxton Bakery
2lb Claxton Fruit Cake, $17.45

13th Annual Great Fruitcake Toss
January 5, 2008 – Manitou Springs, Colorado