30 Pounds of Pure Joy

No, not my ample 1-year-old daughter, I mean of course fruitcake.

It’s the 12th century and newfangled dried fruit, plus spices of all kinds, are pouring into Europe by the (ox)cartload. Suddenly the continent can’t get enough of fruitcake — and everyone’s getting into the act. The English are making their cakes and puddings, the Scots their Black Buns (I said no snickering from the back of the room!), the Germans their stollen, and the Italians their pannettone, all of which were variations on the same basic idea, not to mention minor miracles considering what it would have taken to assemble all the ingredients in one place at that time. Eggs had to be collected, spices procured and ground, dried fruits washed, pitted and soaked, sugar scraped from cakes (then pounded and sieved), butter washed and soaked in aromatics to take off the funk. No wonder that when the Medievals decided to go to the trouble of making a fruitcake for a wedding or high holiday, they didn’t mess around. Cakes that tipped the scales at 25 pounds weren’t unusual.

One myth that’s common regarding heavily spiced baked goods like fruitcake is that the Medievals made them to show status, in the same way your neighbor might cruise by in his custom Mustang GT at the moment you’re washing your Ford Focus (jerk). Fashionable historical revisionism is what that is. While it may be true that only the wealthy could afford to buy exotic imported ingredients in those days, employing them was a way of marking special events, like breaking out the last of the good beer when your best friend announces he’s getting married. The more special the occasion, the more liberally the good stuff was dispensed. Hence some of the wacky original fruitcake recipes, which seem to call for more spice and candied fruit than flour. Must have been one heck of a taste sensation (and one hell of a party).

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