By Emmett Burnett
There is no middle ground with fruitcake. You either love it or hate it.
Indeed, few holiday foods either threaten or accentuate “peace on Earth, good will toward men” more than the cake of Christmas. Alabama is no exception.
For fruitcake connoisseurs, it is confectionary nostalgia, a reminder of relatives and friends together at Christmas. But detractors see an ominous comparison. To them, fruitcake is like their relatives, a family of nuts embalmed in booze.
Scorned or cherished, whatever your feelings towards fruitcake – when done right it is a delicacy and done wrong it is a roofing shingle – all agree, it is a survivor.
Examples of “done right” include Whaley Pecan Company’s line, Alabama Fruitcake (alabamafruitcake.com), launched in 2019. In 2020, the cloud of COVID-19 slowed but never stopped it. “We hunkered down, weathered the storm and are looking forward to the holidays,” says Melissa Boatner, fourth generation in the Troy, Alabama business her great-grandfather founded. There is always a demand for fruitcake and has been for centuries.
The yuletide treasure’s origin references ancient Rome with its pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins, mixed into barley mash. Honey, spices, and dried fruit were added during the Middle Ages.
Today fruitcake is popular in more than 20 countries. Australians, New Zealanders, and Bulgarians eat it year-round. Most countries partake of fruitcake during the Christmas Season – except Ireland where it is consumed during Halloween. And only the United States ridicules it.
“We think it started with Johnny Carson,” says Cullman resident Elliott Morgan, whose family business once made and shipped fruitcakes by the thousands from Selma, Alabama, to the world. “Carson joked on ‘The Tonight Show’ that every slice comes from an original giant cake and is passed around year after year.”
The joke continued with “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno. It took an Alabamian to set the record straight, proving “The Tonight Show” was nutty as a … OK, that’s too easy.
Monroeville’s Marie Rudisill wrote the book, Fruitcake. “She was invited on ‘The Tonight Show’ to promote it,” recalls Gail Deas, director of development of the Monroe County Museum in Monroeville. Leno dubbed Rudisill (also Truman Capote’s aunt) the “Fruitcake Lady.” The name stuck.
On Dec. 14, 2000, before a national audience, the Monroeville native instructed Leno and Mel Gibson on the art of making fruitcake. And indeed, it is an art.
“A good one is an expression of love and abundance,” says Isabelle Kyrk, creator of mondofruitcake.com. “It takes a lot of money to make a good one,” the Chicago blogger adds. “Fruit, nuts, and alcohol are expensive. A baker must be committed to the expense and time before taking it on.”
Cliff Burkett, manager of Priester’s Pecans (priesters.com) in Ft. Deposit, adds, “To me, the most difficult part of making fruitcakes is the chopping. The ingredients are too gooey for a food processor and must be hand chopped.” It is a sizeable task indeed for the store that will sell about 1,000 fruitcakes during the holidays. Priester’s has a six-person fruitcake team from October to early January.
“Baking temperatures are critical,” adds Morgan. “Everything has to be just right. If the oven heat is too high – even by a few degrees – pecans and fruit will burn and the batter’s moisture evaporates. If the temperature is too cool the eggs won’t cook.”
Recipes vary depending on the cake type, but Morgan suggests aging the cake a minimum of two to three days – 10 to 15 are better. Then open the cake and marinate with preferred alcohol as pecans and fruit dance with glee. Close it and let the cake sit an additional two to three weeks during the miracle of fermentation.
“Refrigerated, a fruitcake can last 6 months to a year or more,” Morgan adds. “It will still taste like just made.”
As for jokes and ridicule about fruitcake – that’s just nutty. “I don’t get it,” says Burkett. “The ones I’ve had were well made and delicious. I don’t understand the joke.”
Kyrk agrees and explains two misconceptions: “One, some people think fruitcake is dry, hard, and brick-like. Not true. It is moist, delicious, and full of fruit, nuts, and good things.” She continues, “Two – nobody likes fruitcake. Again, not true. Lots of people love it.”
Kyrk, a Chicago area resident, laments that good fruitcake is not readily available outside the South. That is not the case in Alabama.
“It’s a southern tradition,” notes Deas of Monroeville, home of the annual November Fruitcake Festival. “Years ago, everybody made fruitcake for the holidays. For many even today those recipes are handed down through generations.”
And the legacy continues in Alabama, with bountiful bakeries like Troy’s Whaley Pecan Company. Retired now, Elliott Morgan sold his family’s recipe to the state’s pecan legend. There is joy in the Wiregrass.
Whaley’s has been in the pecan business since 1937. The Morgans have made fruitcake since the 1950s. Behold the perfect marriage.
“We were delighted when Elliott offered his family recipe,” said Whaley’s Melissa Boatner. “We are dedicated to keeping that same quality.” Quality abounds – just follow your nose.
Before startup, Whaley’s baked fruitcake test batches. “The smell was wonderful,” recalls Boatner, about the euphoric aroma seeping in Pike County. Troy’s fruitcake bliss is available at its company store and website.
Also available forever in Alabama are Christmases with fruitcake, so don’t go nuts.
If you want to make your own holiday fruitcake, Alabama Living partner Brooke Burks from The Buttered Home blog shares this easy favorite from her files.
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 large eggs
- 1 and 1/4 cups self-rising flour
- Zest of one lemon
- 4 ounces dried cherries, halved
- 7 ounces mixed dried fruits – dates, raisins or whatever dried fruits you prefer
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Butter and line the base of a loaf pan with baking parchment paper. In a large bowl, add the one cup sugar, butter, salt and vanilla extract. Whisk or beat the ingredients together until pale and creamy. Add the eggs to the bowl and mix together until combined. Add flour into creamed mixture. Add the dried fruit to the bowl, and then add the lemon zest. Using a large spoon, fold the fruit into the batter, taking care not to over-mix. Sprinkle top with one teaspoon sugar.
Bake for 1 hour 25 minutes. Cool in pan for 20 minutes and turn out.