20 December 2009

Fruitcake as Lump of Coal:

Borrowing today's post from Michael G. Howell who has given permission for me to copy his work on my blog.

Fruitcake as Lump of Coal: A Derridian Deconstruction of a Loathed Holiday Icon

by Michael G. Howell

Close your eyes for a moment and try to explain what comes to mind when I say Fruitcake. With any number of people with any other word; cat, for example, everyone will have a different mental image of a cat. But with fruitcake the results would appear to be almost universally similar. Similar and negative. It’s hard to imagine a more despised holiday pastry than the fruitcake. The dense, dark cake, heavy like a tumor, impregnated with impossibly bright and sweet chunks of candied fruit appears as appetizing as a loaf of steamed leather. Yet the fruitcake still remains firmly seated in our collective consciousness as a symbol of that most wonderful time of the year. But to be sure, receiving a fruitcake, while once upon a time thought of as a kind gesture, has transformed over several generations to the equivalent of receiving a lump of coal in the stocking. In other words; if you get a fruitcake this year you must have done something very, very wrong.

How could something seemingly so fantastic have drastically turned into the Grinch of pastries? On the one hand you have cake. Who doesn’t enjoy cake? Cake is delicious. Cake brings people together. Cake is used to celebrate just about every major and minor accomplishment a person could conceivably achieve. Cake is a cornerstone of any and all festivities in myriad social gatherings.

And fruit. Since the dawn of time (save for that one minor set back in a garden long ago involving a serpent and an apple) fruit has been one of the most important food items in every culture. And the sheer variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes in the fruit world pretty much guarantees there is at least one fruit somewhere in the world growing on a tree or bush that is just right for you. It tastes great and it’s good for you. What better to offset the empty calories of cake than fruit?

Perhaps the fruitcake represents that old adage “too much of a good thing.” Cake is good, fruit is good so shouldn’t good + good = freaking awesome? But it doesn’t. At least not anymore. At one time, perhaps, fruitcake was beloved by all. Around the 16th century a popular way to transport fruits was by storing them in strong concentrations of sugar. This practice lead to the inevitable sweetening of the fruit and enhancing the color, as well. Eventually fruits not native to an area could be transported from far away lands leading to a virtual cornucopia of colors and flavors hitherto unknown in the civilized world (which at the time was western Europe). By the 19th century the fruitcake became a staple because, well, what else are you going to do with a bunch of candied dry fruit?

The result was a brick-like “food” with bits of fruit embedded inside. From the outside you might mistake it for a shoe box (though some traditional fruitcakes took on a more round, pound cake appearance). Usually the fruitcake in everyone’s mind is this impossibly heavy, possibly armored, dense, soul-sucking block that, in all probability, would withstand a nuclear holocaust. But before you go hoarding fruitcakes to build a bunker I should tell you that a fruitcake fort probably won’t withstand anything stronger than a 5 megaton detonation. And in all likelihood anything we get hit with will probably be at least 10 megatons.

It’s appearance should be your first clue that maybe something isn’t quite right with this so-called cake. I mean, really, cakes aren’t supposed to look like they’ve just been dug out of the ground. That might be why the British (and what greater culinary experts are there) started putting icing on the tops of their fruitcakes. Lipstick on a pig? A coat of paint on ancient ruins ain’t gonna make it the Taj Mahal. Icing on a fruitcake, while a noble endeavor, is merely a cosmetic change and merely attempts to hide the otherwise disturbing product. Upon closer inspection the subterfuge won’t last.

But certainly something that looks just so incredibly inedibley wrong must have some redeeming feature. What about taste? Surely it is a delicious tasty culinary phenom. I’m sorry to say, no. A slice of your average fruitcake will more than likely send you into a diabetic coma. The amount of sugar guarantees that a slice is nothing less than a tooth melting disaster. Some people have a sweet tooth and might be able to handle it. For some reason the Japanese seem to enjoy fruitcake. But if you’re like me you stopped trying to figure out the Japanese a long time ago. If you could somehow just have small bite-sized fruitcake nuggets (patent pending) then fruitcake might just be tolerable. But no. You have an entire loaf of this stuff taking up precious counter space in your kitchen. And you and it both know that it won’t move until the following year when you give it to someone who did you wrong.

Apart from icing there weren’t many more attempts to pretty up a fruitcake. It’s as if a council of cooks got together to head scratch over what to do about this food brick. They squirted some icing on it and called it a day. That was the ultimate fix, the best and only thing they could think of. So taste had to be addressed. Enter the 19th and 20th century southern United States.

The Southern half of the United States has some wonderful culinary traditions. I won’t get into them here since we’re talking about the opposite. But you’d figure that the South would find a way to rise (the fruitcake) again. Their solution to the tragically sweet taste: just add nuts. Ok, so now not only is it so dense that it has its own gravitational pull, elephant man hideous, sweeter somehow than sugar alone, but now, NOW, it has crunchy bits in it as well. Hold a piece of nutty fruitcake in your hand and you might mistake it for a broken piece of concrete. I am reminded of taking a bite of sausage only to find my teeth striking then rolling around one of those mysterious hard chunks. Imagine that . . . got it . . . ok now add two tablespoons of sugar.

At one point someone tried to offset the terribly sweet taste with alcohol. The result did help in cutting down the sweetness and made it a tad more edible. But with so much alcohol in the cake the unintended result (or for some, very intended indeed) was that people were getting loaded off of their fruitcakes. Trust me, you don’t want to have to puke up fruitcake when you’re three sheets to the wind.

So the fruitcake’s not looking so good. Literally and figuratively. It looks terrible and it tastes so sweet it’s hardly edible. But it is still here. It is still around. Year after year fruitcakes are prepared, bought, and given as gifts. How could something so incredibly bad have lasted so long (eh hm, George W. Bush).

Part of the fruitcake’s prominence in pop culture relies on the fact that it IS so bad. The horrifying disgustingness itself is what propels the mystery of this cultural phenomenon. Fruitcake is still around for the same reason we slow down to see car wrecks or watch reality TV shows. It is just so bad you can’t help but be interested in it. Johnny Carson once posited that there is only one fruitcake in existence and that it has been passed around for decades. This of course is not true as there are still many bakeries that not only make fruitcakes, they specialize in them. Others suggest the longevity of the fruitcake in popular culture to be part of a generation gap in which aging grandparents give fruitcakes to their adult grandchildren who then just throw them out or re-gift them in essence seeing the fruitcake as a symbol of a bygone era.

The fruitcake has reached post-modernity. Given as a gift it can be seen as ironic. Popular culture poking fun at itself. Or, for those with less of a sense of humor, giving a fruitcake can be interpreted as something much more sinister. Something a kin to receiving a lump of coal in your stocking if you were a bad little boy or girl that year. Giving coal is no longer environmental friendly and for the average household it isn’t easy to come by. In the early 20th century coal was used as a fuel to heat homes so it was readily available to place under the tree or in a stocking for a bad little boy or girl. That time has passed. Coal is not used in our homes anymore. Tell a child they might receive a lump of coal for being bad and the prospect may intrigue them. Something has to take its place and the next best (worst) thing is the fruitcake. As we have already determined in many ways the fruitcake is very coal-like. At least, perhaps in appearance.

If you give a fruitcake to someone as a gift it could mean any number of things:
1) You phoned it in this Christmas putting zero thought into your choice of gifts

2) You don’t really like the recipient but a gift is obligatory as is the gratitude you’ll receive back

3) You don’t like the recipient and the fruitcake is a symbolic slap in the face

If you receive a fruitcake it means that the giver doesn’t like you, wants you to suffer, or doesn’t have the audacity to slap you in the face. You must have done something to really piss off this person and I suggest that you should probably just end it now before things get out of hand.

So now you have a fruitcake (or if you have given one, be prepared for retaliation next year). What do you do with it? You could eat it but we’ve pretty much covered why that is something you should probably avoid. You could just give it away to the mailman or someone else. The question is, do you want to keep receiving your mail? You must be very careful to whom you give a fruitcake. It’s the atomic bomb of the gift world. Don’t wield it without some responsibility.

You could through it away but that might prove to be an environmental hazard. The half life of one of these things has got to be an easy 50 years. Not to mention all the weighed down garbage trucks and sanitary workers with herniated discs from hauling around all those trashed fruitcakes.

So what to do with them? In Manitou Springs, Colorado they have an annual fruitcake toss where you can even rent one if you don’t have your own. You could build some sort of structure but good luck getting the safety inspector to approve such a monstrosity. You could bury it but even the slightest threat of a fruitcake tree is a chance no one should take.

I have my own modest proposal for what to do with these unwanted pastries. I say we should make them even more than their lump of coal counterparts and use them for fuel. Burn them, in the hearth, a bonfire, in burn barrels. The density will guarantee they’ll burn for hours (the ones with alcohol might go up quicker). You could save hundreds on your heating bill and your home will smell like fruit and cake for days. If the fruitcake is the cloud, free fuel is the silver lining.

Merry Christmas

No comments: