Nuts over fruitcake

November 10, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It's the Rodney Dangerfield of confections -- rich, successful, unmistakable and, in some circles, utterly without respect.

It's a hallowed family tradition, it's standard late-show humor. It's a business that includes great big bakeries, bit players, high school bands and Trappist monks. It's a seasonal treat, a yearlong guilty habit, a lifelong running joke and a litmus test of family relationships.

Ah, fruitcake. To know it is to love it or hate it -- no messing with Mr. or Ms. In-between when it comes to the dense loaf of candied fruit (usually), nuts (often), and cake (very little).

Moira Hodgson, British-born food writer and restaurant critic now based in New York, has a theory, which she expounds in the the very first paragraph of her new book, "Favorite Fruitcakes:"

"People either love fruitcakes or they hate them, the latter I think because they only know the commercial variety -- heavy, dried-out cakes that are dyed alarming colors and often have a strange soapy taste. But a real fruitcake is to store-bought ones what Camembert is to artificially flavored cheese spread, or Puligny Montrachet to white wine cooler.

"In England, we have them for Easter as well as for Christmas," she says. "And we have them for tea. So I grew up really liking them."

But it was partly the love-hate reaction caused by the very mention of their name that led her to collect the recipes and write the book, which is interspersed with essays on fruitcake from such noted writers as Russell Baker, Truman Capote and Calvin Trillin.

In her research, she says, she discovered two things: "There are a lot of recipes for fruitcake. And there are a lot that are depressingly similar -- which may account for some people's dislike."

Like Ms. Hodgson, people often look back fondly on a childhood fruitcake tradition.

"I love fruitcake! I do! Don't you think it's odd that people don't?" says Edie Meleski, director of public relations for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. "My father was a country doctor. Our family received wonderful fruits and cakes from his patients. Dad was paid in zucchini in the summer and fruitcake in the winter. I guess I cultivated my taste for fruitcake then."

But not all attempts to cultivate a taste for it are successful.

"I've been in this business for 20 years or so and I've never been able to sell fruitcake. I've tried to sell fruitcake . . . but I've never been able to," says Janis Talbott, who with her husband, Bob, runs Morton's, the spirits and gourmet food and catering shop in Mount Vernon.

"I remember my grandmother made these things in September," Ms. Talbott says, "and she was wrapping them up in dish towels and soaking them in rum . . . I think my poor grandfather got suckered into eating all of them."

Ms. Meleski disagrees about store-bought cakes. "There's a lot of excellent fruitcakes out there . . . I seek it out in the supermarket." Ms. Meleski also recalls her mother baking fruitcakes in the fall, getting ready for Christmas. "I guess it's the modern woman," she says. "I haven't made any myself."

Fruitcake ought to be a favorite with all home cooks, Ms. Hodgson says. "If you're not a particularly good baker, there's a lot of room for error. It's not as exacting as so many recipes for cakes are." Besides, if there's something you don't like -- citron or candied cherries -- you can leave it out, and put in things you do like -- dried fruits or lots of pecans or walnuts, ginger or coconut.

And, she says, you can control the quality of the ingredients: "If you put good things into it, and unless you do something really peculiar, it's going to be good."

"I think it is a good idea" to combine fruit and nuts in a cake, says Nick Sheridan of Cuisine Catering in Baltimore. "There are a few fruitcakes where the candy and nuts enliven a sponge cake. But the way most fruitcake is made, it's just these candied fruits stuck together with the merest glue of cake. So it's so incredibly heavy and sweet. . . . It's an excess of generosity.

Although he says he loves Christmas and hates to deprecate a tradition, Mr. Sheridan regretfully concludes, "Fruitcake is something you give to someone you owe things to and you don't really want to see again, and then you've done your duty and they are stuck with finding someone to pass it on to . . . It's kind of like that game where, when the music stops, you don't want to be caught holding it."

But Ms. Hodgson insists fruitcake has "just had a bad press."

Maybe it's the name. Can a food that's become synonymous with crazy behavior ever be taken seriously? Does fruitcake need a new image?

Ms. Talbott of Morton's says she has had success selling mini-muffin-sized fruitcakes from Grace Rush, and "nut cakes" from Sterling Bakeries. "But I've never advertised them as fruitcakes. If you say they're fruitcakes, people won't buy 'em."

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