It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”
“A Christmas Memory” ~ Truman Capote (1924-1984; American novelist, playwright, screenwriter and actor)
It’s no secret. I love food. I love to cook. I love to bake. And, when it’s fruitcake weather, I love to lose myself in baking fruitcakes.
Yes. Fruitcakes. MAHvelous fruitcakes! Say what? You don’t like fruitcake? No way! I’ll bet that you’ve never had a really good fruitcake. Not to worry. I’m not going to try to turn you into a fruitcake or into a fruitcake lover.
But, hey. Come on. Show me a little respect, too, won’t you? Just stop it right there. Right now. I’ve heard them all, heard them all already, all the fruitcake jokes.
What baffles me is how the ancient, noble, beloved fruitcake became the loathed butt end of some of the worst jokes in the world.
I’m tempted to blame Johnny Carson for them all. Every last one of them. I’m sure, though, that fruitcake jokes didn’t start with him, but his fruitcake joke is, without any doubt in the world, the worst in the annals of baking. Maybe that’s why it’s the most well-known. I’m sure you know it. On his Tonight Show during the 1960s, Carson quipped:
“The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”
People keeping sending Carson’s fruitcake joke to each other, year after year, too. Look. I just sent it to you.
And, no doubt, you’ve heard others like this one:
“Why does fruitcake make the perfect gift?
“Because the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t found a way to damage it.”
And who hasn’t heard this one?
“If you don’t like it, use it as a doorstop.”
But it gets worse than any of those dried and false jokes that couldn’t come to life if they were soaked in all the finest brandies in the world! There’s one fruitcake joke that is truly alive and lives year after year in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It comes to life annually during its Great Fruitcake Toss, celebrated since 1996. People pitch fruitcakes. People launch fruitcakes. People toss fruitcakes. And if my post makes you want to pack up your cake and join the people, you still have plenty of time to make arrangements. The next Toss will be on January 28, 2023. No fruitcake? No problem. (Don’t you dare ask for one of mine! You’ve got your nerve.) Rent one at the festival. You can, for one dollar. Go. Go on. Let your fruitcake fly.
That’s quite enough about fruitcake jokes. I’m not certain how I got pulled down that rabbit hole anyway.
My intent was simple and straightforward. It occurred to me that it might be fun to explore fruitcakes in literature. No. No. I don’t mean writers who are fruitcakes. They all are. (Trust me: I know firsthand.) I simply mean literary works about fruitcakes. You don’t even have to like fruitcake to be intrigued by such a hefty intellectual pursuit, especially if you like literature–as I do–and even more especially if you like fruitcake, too, and I do (but only the ones that I bake using my mother’s legendary recipe).
The first literary work involving fruitcake that popped into my mind was Truman Capote’s 1956 autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory” featured in the pull quote to this post. Even if you haven’t read the short story, I’m betting that you’ve seen a movie version. I’ve seen several, but my favorite is from 1966, featuring Geraldine Page, one of my favorite actresses. (No actress can evoke heartfelt longing and nostalgia with a scrunched face better than she, and she did it at my tearful best in her Trip to Bountiful.)
What popped into my mind next wasn’t a literary work at all. Instead, it was a writer–one of my favorite poets: Emily Dickinson. Though famous and acclaimed today, she was an obscure poet in her lifetime–with only 10 of her poems known to have been published while she was alive–but she was highly regarded as a baker. Her father would only eat bread that she had baked. Recluse though she was, children in Amherst (MA), where she lived from 1830 to 1886 and only left on three occasions, would stand in the yard beneath her bedroom window as she lowered baskets of her freshly baked gingerbread. She was especially known for her black Caribbean Christmas cake. Houghton Library at Harvard University owns Dickinson’s handwritten recipe and the tradition of baking her cake continues today. It is so important that Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip wrote an essay, “Making Black Cake in Combustible Spaces.” She will read it as part of a moderated conversation from Dickinson’s home on December 12, 2022: “The Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute.”
I’ve never made Dickinson’s black cake, but just this past weekend, I baked a Jamaican Black Cake that’s close to hers. My home is still redolent from more than four cups of rum and port that I soaked all the dried fruits in for several weeks before my bake. The cake is a beauty! I will let it age probably until Valentine’s Day 2023. After I taste sweet success, I may reach out to Houghton Library and invite myself to join Team Cake, a group of Houghton bakers who recreate Dickinson’s cake, rigorously adhering to her recipe, and share it with colleagues and friends on Dickinson’s December 10 birthday. Wouldn’t that be a grand culinary adventure. Look out Houghton. Here I come.
The next writer with a fruitcake recipe is none other than Eudora Welty–American short story writer, novelist, and photographer. Her fruitcake is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a White Fruitcake that sounds similar to mine. (For mine, I use brandy to soak the fruits before baking and to preserve the cakes after baking. If a little brandy is good, a little more is better, especially when it comes to fruitcakes.) Welty redeems herself, though, by adding a cup of bourbon to the batter. She redeems herself further with the note at the end of her recipe:
“From time to time before Christmas you may improve it with a little more bourbon, dribbled over the top to be absorbed and so ripen the cake before cutting. This cake will keep for a good white, in or out of the refrigerator.”
Her fruitcake recipe–given to her by a friend, Mrs. Mosal–was immortalized in the 1971 Symphony League of Jackson cookbook for which Welty wrote the “Foreword,” commenting:
“I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in – the home’s kitchen.”
See there. Books give life everlasting to everything, even fruitcakes.
Dare I confess that those three literary fruitcake associations–Welty, Dickinson, and Capote–were the only ones that I knew readily.
I suppose that I could end the post now, but I can’t. Not just yet. If I did, I wouldn’t get to share the fruits of my research.
So let me start by sharing when the word fruitcake was first used as a reference to a type of cake. 1687 is a long time ago, but, candidly, I expected the word to have been coined far earlier. I was a little disappointed. But, anyway, it appeared that year in a heading in J. Shirley’s Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities:
“Instructions for a gentlewoman in making of marmalade, paste of fruit … fruit-cakes, honey ” (vi. 38).
Since I was perusing the OED already, I decided to see when fruitcake was first used to suggest extreme eccentricity or insanity, as in nutty as a fruitcake.
It was first used in that context on March 5, 1911, in the Chicago Sunday Examiner :
“Isn’t Ethel a sweet girl, as sweet as a piece of cake?”
“Why, I think that she is as nutty as fruit cake” (v. 5/2).
At this point, my research into fruitcakes in literature took a turn that surprised me. Really surprised me.
I browsed “famous short stories about fruitcakes.” No famous ones.
Then I tried “famous poems about fruitcakes.” No famous ones.
In a search of desperation, I tried “famous novels about fruitcakes.” Again, no famous ones.
At last, I tried something straight forward: literary fruitcakes.
O. M. G. What I found left me trembling in my virtual research tracks.
I landed on an article with nearly that exact title: “The Literary Fruitcake” written by Don Webb. It chronicles the literary travels of one specific fruitcake, from its first gifting in 1843 all the way up to its being stolen on Christmas Eve, 1993.
The story line alone is powerful. Imagine. A fruitcake–whether beloved or maligned– deemed important enough to have survived for 150 years, without having been eaten; to have been passed on from one writer to the next; and to have been documented meticulously with every gifting. It is nothing short of amazing. I doubt whether most of us could document our own family lineage that far back with the precision that Webb achieves in his first-person narrative.
Aside from being a story of surviving against all odds, it’s made all the more fascinating simply by the famous writers associated with the cake. They are beyond belief, but they are the very reason I kept reading the narrative. How could I not be aware of the fruitcake associated with so many famous writers?
Well, I was not. So I kept reading. In fact, once I started, I could not stop.
Queen Victoria, it seems, gave the fruitcake to Charles Dickens in 1843 after the first dramatic reading of his A Christmas Carol.
Some years later–in 1865–Bram Stoker stole the cake at a publication party for Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. For years afterwards he showed the cake to friends every now and then. But eventually the spell of the fruitcake novelty wore off.
When Stoker published his Dracula in 1897, he passed the cake on to Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan) who passed it on to Algernon Blackwood (The Willows).
Wouldn’t you agree that this is deliciously fascinating? Yes, indeed. It is captivating. And to think that I still have to share how the cake was passed on through more literary hands for another hundred years.
Not to worry. I’ll speed it up. This fruitcake was old to begin with and it’s getting older by the word. But before speeding things up, let me state–just for the official record–that my interest in this narrative lies not with the fruitcake but rather with its famous literary owners.
After Algernon Blackwood, the fruitcake ended up with Gertrude Stein (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) who didn’t really want it, but her partner Alice Toklas persuaded her to keep it. It might amuse you to know that it was around this same time that Alice came up with her famous recipe for hashish fudge. It might amuse you even more to know that the “recipe” wasn’t hers after all. When her The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook was about to be published in 1954, the book had empty pages. The publisher added filler recipes, including one for Hashish Fudge submitted by avant-garde artist Brion Gysin. Alice was clueless and had never tested the recipe! Read all about it in the Scientific American. Yes. Scientific American. Whoever says that the humanities don’t matter needs to read “Go Ask Alice: The History of Toklas’ Legendary Hashish Fudge.”
But let’s get back to our famous, traveling literary fruitcake.
Stein gave the cake to Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea) who then passed it on to James Joyce (Ulysses).
When Joyce died, the fruitcake went to Samuel Beckett, prior to the publication of his Waiting for Godot.
Then in 1959, William Burroughs went to Paris to finalize publication plans for his Naked Lunch. While there, he managed to meet with Beckett–his literary hero–for 30 minutes or so. When he left, he wanted a memento and took what he believed to be a brick in the bottom of Beckett’s closet.
As you might have guessed, it wasn’t a brick at all. It was the famed fruitcake. Burroughs gave the cake to Allen Ginsberg (Howl) who gifted Jack Kerouac (On the Road) who passed it on to Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) who traded it to Mary Denning in exchange for her knowledge of Pre-WW II chemistry.
(Dayum! I didn’t know that I could go so fast. Note to myself: Leave out all the nitty, gritty details and hasten the pace every time.)
Don Webb–the narrator of “The Literary Fruitcake”–bought the cake for $150 dollars, took it home to Austin, Texas, and eventually decided to eat it on Christmas Eve, 1993.
Sadly, when he and his wife came home that evening, they discovered that their home had been robbed. The thieves had taken the fruitcake along with other valuables.
The police never located the fruitcake. Over the next few months, though, graffiti began to appear on wall after wall throughout Austin.
And then I read:
“… the driven thief released the intensity of his soul. … We never sought out the writer, for we feared our presence might interfere with his process, but we grew fiercely proud of the words that covered our walls. Soon all of Austin was obscured by the words by the words of perfection:
“‘We, who dwell in the holy shrines, will preserve this treasure unto the ends of time.'”
It was not until then–not until the very end–that I realized: I had been had. I had been had big time.
I could not believe it: I, the English professor who knows fully well–and even warns his students–not to trust first person narrators, especially in first person accounts of fruitcakes passing through the hands of royalty and an incredible number of auspicious British and American writers.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
But it’s okay. It’s really quite okay. I’ve been had many, many times down through the years. Sweet Scorpionic revenge is always mine.
I just made reservations to fly to Manitou Springs, Colorado, so that I can participate in their January 28, 2023, Great Fruitcake Toss. I have reached out to Collin Street Bakery to see whether they will sponsor me.
Here’s what I’m going to do for my Fruitcake Toss Extraordinaire that will make world-wide headlines. I’m going to wrap Duper Don Webb up real tight in all the printed and virtual copies that I can find of his “The Literary Fruitcake.” And then I’m going to give a celebratory “Heave-Ho” as I catapult the nuttiest fruitcake of them all–the author who pulled off the biggest fruitcake heist ever and told the biggest fruitcake joke ever–as far into the thin air as possible.
For once, I’ll let a fruitcake fly with glee.