December is National Fruitcake Month
While it may not be the most revered holiday delicacy, the fruitcake, in one form or another, has been around for hundreds of years and has an interesting history worth pondering.
What is that heavy-as-an-anvil holiday treat taking up table space at many holiday functions, church bazaars, and office parties you ask? It is the same dessert that has a 1:1 density ratio when compared to mahogany, according to Harpers Index. And it is the same holiday treat (prominently displayed at the Air and Space Museum) that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought to the moon and back. If you guessed fruitcake you would be correct! While it may not be the most revered holiday delicacy, the fruitcake, in one form or another, has been around for hundreds of years and has an interesting history worth pondering this December- otherwise known as “National Fruitcake Month”.
Smithsonian Magazine (Rhodes, December 21, 2010) provides a "Concise Cultural History of This Loved and Loathed Loaf”. As described, the fruit cake as we know it today, was likely developed in western Europe as dried fruits and fruit breads became more mainstream in the diets of medieval folk. Spicy Italian “Panpepato” or “panforte” (strong bread) was a popular early 13th century type of fruitcake, which received its name from the large amount of pepper in the recipe. “Stollen”, a German fruitcake made with dried fruit and covered with powdered sugar, is a traditional holiday bread that historians have traced back to the 15th century. Coincidentally, if you happen to be in the Grand Rapids, MI area visiting the Downtown Market, Field and Fire Bakery make a delicious Stollen.
Many modern variations of the fruitcake include ingredients like walnuts, almonds, pecans, apricots, dates, cherries, apples, gummi-worms, and blueberries-perhaps soaked in rum prior to baking. As Michigan is ranked number two nationally in the diversity of crops produced, it may be possible to make a holiday fruitcake with 100 percent Michigan ingredients. Michigan blueberries, cherries, apples, sugar from Michigan sugar beets, maple syrup, locally grown and milled wheat, chestnuts, and even locally distilled spirits could be included.
If the recipe does not turn out as intended, I highly suggest saving the fruitcake until after the holidays, like many adventurous folks in a small Colorado town have been doing since 1996. The Great Fruitcake Toss, held in Manitou Springs each January, began because of the massive number of fruitcakes left over from the holidays. Fruitcakes aren’t just “tossed” by hand; serious fruitcake tossers have upped the ante with catapults and air cannons. According to www.visitcos.com/fruitcake-toss, “The great fruitcake toss is the event of the winter season as the hapless dessert is launched into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devices.” The competition boasts events for all ages and skill levels including: distance, accuracy, team toss, speed, best balance, and knock down the fruitcake. You can watch a youtube video of the 2013 event here. Perhaps it is fitting that Merriam Webster defines the fruitcake as: 1) “a rich cake containing nuts, dried or candied fruits, and spices” or 2) “a foolish, eccentric, or crazy person”.
In case you are interested in what other important days the month of December holds, here are two more: National Roast Suckling Pig Day on Dec. 18 and National Egg Nog Day on Dec. 24th.
If you have an idea for a food or agricultural related business, the Michigan State University Product Center offers a range of services to help you move your idea forward. For more information on food and health in Michigan, please visit the Michigan State University Extension Food and Health page where you can sign up for a weekly newsletter to keep abreast of the latest information.