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A 125-year-old fruitcake?
Secret recipes, a chat with a Trappist monk, and a cake baked in 1878 -- served to Jay Leno.
December 24, 2003: 10:20 AM EST
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Consider the fruitcake.

Can any other baked good be so maligned? To detractors, it's the travesty of the dessert world, not meant for actual consumption but best used as a doorstop or the punch line to a thousand jokes.

But to fans, fruitcake has a certain gravitas that eludes other desserts.

Last year, Americans bought some 5.12 million fruitcakes worth roughly $16 million, according to ACNielsen, which tracks sales in supermarkets and other mass venues. (They bought about 714 million fresh cakes in all.)

Those figures don't include purchases of more expensive fruitcakes from popular mail-order houses and independent bakeries.

At Harry and David, for example, customers from over 102 countries purchase more than 100,000 of the purveyor's "traditional" fruitcakes. The mail-order food company sells them for $17.95. According to spokesman Bill Ihle, fruitcakes have been among the company's most popular sellers for nearly 50 years.

"It's Harry Holmes' original recipe from 1947, and the fruitcake lore of Harry and David is that no one person knows the entire recipe," says Ihle. "One shift comes in and makes one half of it. Another shift comes in and makes the other half. And the third shift mixes the two parts together. The recipe is literally on the back of an envelope, guarded in a special vault."

Independent bakers and even places like Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, also do a brisk business. At the abbey, a brotherhood of Trappist monks sells roughly 24,000 cakes each year at $25 each.

"It's our main source of inventory to pay the bills," says Brother Barnabas Brownsey, the abbey's sales manager. (Contrary to their reputation, not all Trappist orders take vows of silence.)

Other monasteries in Oregon, Missouri and Kentucky also find fruitcake is a perfect source of revenue because it can be stored for months in a cool, dry room before sales pick up in November and December.

The ultimate luxury

Nurtured into, er, fruition, the finest cakes are bathed in ablutions of alcohol -- their nuts, dried fruits and spices left to "settle" over time to infuse the dessert with rich aromas and heady flavors.

"It's not like whipping up a loaf of bread," agrees Nicholas Pyle, president of Independent Bakers Association. "Someone has to take time to put together a fruitcake."

Mail Order

Good ones can even convert skeptics. "I used to hate fruitcake," Brother Brownsey confesses. "When I came here and found out they made fruitcake, I thought the Lord was making a joke on me."

Dating back to the Romans, fruitcake was once a relatively modest affair of pomegranate seeds and barley.

By the Middle Ages, cakes were made with dried fruit and honey, costly luxuries few could afford. So they were served only on special occasions -- such as Christmas.

Today, they come in all shapes and sizes. "The thing that's so remarkable about them is their astounding variety," says Moira Hodgson, author of "Favorite Fruitcakes: Recipes, Legends and Lore from the World's Best Cooks and Eaters."

Varieties include those made with Guinness stout, chocolate, coconut, or crystallized ginger. Some cakes are served plain, others are topped with marzipan or nutmeg icing.

Even the Pentagon has its own recipe for the version troops eat. It includes mold inhibitors and shortening that "shall be free from objectionable odors and flavors."

Fruitcakes in the family

A fruitcake's taste and texture is often a family affair, notes Hodgson. Recipes are traditionally passed down from one generation to the next.

Sometimes the actual cake is passed down, too.

Fidelia Ford, an Ohio housewife, baked a family fruitcake on Nov. 27, 1878, and planned to store it until the following Thanksgiving. But she died before the holiday and her relatives couldn't bear to eat or dispose of the cake.

They still can't. Fidelia's great grandson, Morgan, and his wife, Dorothy, now have possession of the 125-year-old dessert. When not kept under a glass compote in their Tecumseh, Mich., home, the cake travels to family reunions and schoolkid show-and-tells.

On Dec. 23, the cake even made an appearance on the "Tonight" show. Morgan gave host Jay Leno a bite, who described the ancient edible as "crystallized."

That's better, one supposes, than "petrified."  Top of page

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