I guess Johnny Carson started it. Way back in his early days on the Tonight Show, he and Ed McMahon would joke about the fruitcake that they passed back and forth as a gift every year. That tinfoil wrapped package eventually took on all the characteristics of a brick. In my mind’s eye I could see the three pigs building a brick house made entirely of petrified fruit cakes. Don’t ask me why the three pigs were involved, they just were. That is just the way my mind works. Anyway, the fruitcake was much ridiculed, even after Johnny and Ed left the Tonight show, the tradition continued with "The Fruitcake Lady" who made appearances on the show and offered her "fruitcake" opinions. In fact, the fruitcake had been a butt of jokes on television programs such as "Father Knows Best" and "The Donna Reed Show" long before Johnny took up the mantle.
Fruitcakes have long been a part of our family tradition. My grandmother made two southern style fruitcakes each year, one for the adults and one for us kids. For the longest time, I was clueless as to why there was a difference. I thought it was because she did not want the kids to eat up all the adults’ cake before they had a chance to enjoy it. At least I thought that until one year, when I was eleven or twelve, we ran out of the kids’ cake and I snuck a piece of the adults’ cake. Now that was special! I had never before tasted alcohol. Brandy took on a whole new meaning that year. I also figured out in that moment why the adult fruit cakes were wrapped in brandy soaked cheesecloth.
In addition to the homemade fruitcake, there was always a large supply of “store bought” fruitcake around. The most common in our part of the country was Claxton’s from up the road a ways in Claxton Georgia. This non-alcoholic delicacy could be found in grocery stores and road side stands from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Additionally our school sold them as a part of the annual fundraising effort. So we had an abundance of fruitcake around. This was of course southern fruitcake complete with lots of candied fruit and nuts. The commercially available fruitcake always contained more cake than the homemade varieties.
I was an adult before I learned how to make fruitcake myself. My wife’s grandmother lived with us for a year before she died, and that Christmas, she took it upon herself to pass on to me her recipe. I say recipe when I have no fewer than three as a result of that transfer. No two of her cakes were the same, and neither are any two of mine. She was of the opinion that you could not put enough nuts and candied fruit into a fruitcake. She used just enough cake batter to minimally keep all the “grumblies” together. Her religious beliefs prevented her from putting brandy or any other alcohol into her cakes until very late in life after her doctor prescribed a daily dose of brandy in the evenings to help her digestion. Her last couple of cakes, like the ones I made after her death contain a modest amount of brandy. I have come to believe that a fruitcake is not a fruitcake without that brandy flavor in it. After all there is no more alcohol in the cake after baking so there is no harm in it.
I had a friend who was always experimenting with food. He spent the majority of his life in the pursuit of duplicating Maurice’s mustard based barbeque sauce. When he moved to California, he could no longer get “the sauce” as he called it, so he was always asking us to get some from the restaurant and ship it to him so he could continue his research. Out west, he was also cut off from the southern fruitcake that he loved so much. One year he decided add brandy to a Claxton fruitcake. Needless to say it was a disaster! The cake completely fell apart. It seems that you need to increase the amount of batter when you add brandy. And you had to have it all together before you cook it. In case you are wondering if he had better luck with Maurice’s barbeque sauce, he did. A year or so before he died he finally produced a sauce that I could not differentiate from Maurice’s. He said that there was still something missing but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference.
I hear these days that there the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado hosts the Great Fruitcake Toss on the first Saturday of every January. That does not sit well with my southern fruitcake loving heart. Fruitcakes are forever! Don’t believe me; just ask Jay Leno who in 2003, sampled a fruitcake baked in 1878 that was kept as an heirloom by the Morgan L. Ford family from Tecumseh, Michigan. Thus proving that wrapping the cake in alcohol-soaked linen before storing is one method of lengthening its shelf life! Oh MY!