Over the Christmas break, I read a story that stopped me cold. I have long heard about survivalists — people who hoard food and supplies so they’ll be ready for an apocalypse. I’ve even heard ads on the radio for freeze-dried edibles that can last for years. In fact, there may, at this moment, be something in my refrigerator that dates from the previous decade.
But this story takes the cake. Literally. There is a family in Michigan that has been holding onto a vintage fruitcake since 1878. That’s not a typo for 1978, which would be weird enough. No, this Gilded Age confectionary — which dates from the era of Rutherford B. Hayes — has been passed down for generations in one family.
Some people just cannot bear to clean out the pantry.
According to the story, Julie Ruttinger has in her possession a fruitcake made by her great-great grandmother during Reconstruction. Family lore has it that the recipe called for the cake to be aged for an entire year, but the cook died before anyone had taken a bite. Her husband was so distressed that he refused to touch the pastry and instead had it encased in glass as a tribute to his beloved spouse.
And now — 142 years later — the hardened loaf is still in the family, which probably confirms what you’ve always believed about fruitcakes. In fact, the Ruttinger heirloom is not even the world’s oldest fruitcake. The “Guinness Book of World Records” claims that one was discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating to around 2200 B.C. Found in its original packaging, the dessert has a label that still reads, “Best if used by 9th Dynasty.”
The chewy confection has long been a popular Christmas staple. My grandmother used to make one every year. Her recipe called for peach brandy, and each December she would send a neighbor to the liquor store to pick up the brandy so that she would not be seen buying the demon drink. But that ingredient could account for the enduring popularity of this particular holiday item.
Johnny Carson was merciless when it came to mocking fruitcakes. The former king of late-night TV insisted that there was only one fruitcake in existence, and that it simply was passed around the country from year to year. In fact, his successor got to sample the Ruttinger fruitcake in 2003, when its owner made an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” When Jay Leno chiseled off a tiny bite of the antique dessert, his review was classic.
“It needs more time,” he said.
I once conducted an experiment to test the legendary density of this perennial Christmas gift. Rectangular blocks of fruitcake are often sold as fundraisers, and I took one of these and carefully placed it on the floor. Then I took a deep breath and stood on top of it for three seconds. Even with 175 pounds of Just the Clax on it, the cake held firm. If the foundation of our house had ever begun to sag, we could have shored it up with fruitcake.
This subject is personal. The most famous bakery that produces this holiday sweet is the Claxton Fruit Cake Company of Claxton, Georgia. Ever since I moved to Arkansas, I have tried to keep this fact a secret, but I guess it is time to come clean. Technically, there is no connection between my family and the town where this company has been churning out desserts since 1910. But that did not stop my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Brooks. For an entire year, she called me “Fruitcake.”
When she wrote students’ names on the board, it would go something like this: “Sally, Fred, Ginger, Fruitcake . . .” This was the same teacher who cast me as the elf who hated Christmas in the school play. And the cast list read, “Angry Elf . . . played by Fruitcake.” I absolutely adored Ms. Brooks.
This candied dessert has not, unfortunately, caught on with younger consumers. Most people who like fruitcake are older, and a few still have fond memories of Rutherford B. Hayes. But according to its website, the Claxton Fruit Cake company is trying to appeal to a new demographic. You can now buy Chocolate Covered Fruit Cake Nuggets, which should go a long way toward enticing future addicts.
I also noticed the company is marketing individually wrapped mini-slices of the famous loaf. Guess what they call these: Clax Snax.