December 08, 2011

America's Oldest Fruitcake

A good fruitcake can last a long time. The high sugar content in the cake helps it keep, and if you frequently moisten the cake with liquor it can last a very long time.

A very, very long time. America's oldest documented fruitcake was baked in 1878 by Fidelia Bates, and it is still in her family today. In 2003 her great grandson, Morgan Ford of Tecumseh, Michigan, brought the cake on Jay Leno's talk show. Despite possible health risks Jay ate a very small piece of the cake. He said it smelled good but tasted crystallized. That's pretty good praise for a cake that's 125 years old.

Michigan may have the oldest fruitcake, but the first fruitcake recipe written in the United States was published in Connecticut 1n 1798. It's contained in our country's first cookbook, AMERICAN COOKERY,OR THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY, AND VEGETABLES, AND THE BEST MODES OF MAKING PASTES, PUFFS, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS AND PRESERVES, AND ALL KINDS OF CAKES,FROM THE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKE. ADAPTED TO THE COUNTRY, AND ALL GRADES OF LIFE. That's quite a title, but at least buyers knew what they were getting! The author is Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known except she was an orphan, a fact stated on the title page.

Simmons mentions something called plumb cake in the title of the book. Although it has a different name, the ingredients are nearly identical to a modern fruitcake. Here's the recipe:

Mix one pound currants, one drachm nutmeg, mace and cinnamon each, a little salt, one pound of citron, orange peal candied, and almonds bleach'd, 6 pound of flour, (well dry'd) beat 21 eggs, and add with 1 quart new ale yeast, half pint of wine, 3 half pints of cream and raisins...

She doesn't tell us how long to bake it or how many pans to fill, but with 21 eggs and 6 pounds of flour she probably had enough cake for the whole state of Connecticut.

The word "plumb" here is actually an older variant spelling of "plum", which centuries ago in England meant raisins or other fruit. So not only are the ingredients the same as a fruitcake, but the name is equivalent as well.

I'm not sure when fruitcake became associated with Christmas, and when it actually became known as fruitcake. Lots of cakes in America's past were really fruitcakes under another name. For example, election cake was a yeasted fruitcake. Lydia Child's 1833 cookbook The American Frugal Housewife has a recipe called wedding cake, but the ingredients are identical to a modern fruitcake. I personally love fruitcake, but I don't think most modern brides want it at their wedding.

Like Christmas itself fruitcake may have its origins in the ancient Greco-Roman world. A writer named Chrysippus claims the Cretans made cakes with nuts, fruit, spices and honey. I'm sure the Romans enjoyed similar treats as the celebrated Saturnalia, the pagan forerunner to Christmas. If a two-thousand year old fruitcake is unearthed I want to see Jay Leno take a bite!


Doug Lazorick said...

You should try the fruit cake made by the Trappist monks in Gethsemane KY. It fairly swims in good Kentucky bourbon.

Peter Muise said...

Doug, I used Wild Turkey when I was baking my fruitcakes because I was out of brandy. I've been soaking them in brandy since then, though.

Anonymous said...

As for fruitcake at a wedding, I have read of a tradition of sending home "groom's cake", a type of fruit cake, in small boxes. (I pictured in my mind a small individual loaf-shaped cake in a white box) It was supposed to be placed under a lady guest's pillow that night so that she could dream of whom she'd marry, if I am remembering the story correctly.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment! That tradition sounds reasonable to me. There are lots of traditions where unmarried women leave something under their pillow as a form of love divination. Another good use for that leftover old fruitcake I suppose!

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post, Peter! Not my favorite cake but holiday sweets are a staple for sure!