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Maligned fruitcake has at least one big fan in the Mountain West

A fruitcake
Brent Moore
/
Flickr
The oft-maligned fruitcake used to be a delicacy.

News Brief

The holiday fruitcake has been the butt of jokes for decades. But one professor in the Mountain West wants to clear its name.

“There’s haters out there, I know, and I feel sorry for them because fruitcake is great stuff,” said Jeff Miller, an associate professor of hospitality management at Colorado State University.

Fruitcake is nutty, dense and lasts a very long time. That’s thanks to low moisture, high sugar content and lots of alcohol. Slices made for Queen Victoria’s wedding in the mid-1800’s are still around. So is a loaf left in Antarctica by explorers in the early 1900’s.

Miller, a former chef, says some decades-old loaves have still proven edible.

“We find fruitcakes all the time that have been forgotten about or have been passed down in families, and daring people take bites of them,” he said. “They say it may not be the best thing they ever ate, but it didn’t kill ‘em to eat it.”

Miller didn’t like fruitcake much as a kid, but he’s been enjoying loaves he bakes himself using dried fruits, nuts, spices and booze.

“People today should know that fruitcake is moist, it’s delicious,” he said. “And if you get the right one, it’s got a little bit of a kick to it.”

He says there are alcohol-free versions, too. But the main thing is, if you bake it yourself, it takes a bit of time.

“Like with so many things, it’s patience. Because you brush all the alcohol onto it several times over the course of three or four days, and you wrap it up tight and put it in a cool place to age,” he said. “But the making of it is quite easy.”

Beyond making and eating fruitcake, Miller knows a lot about its history. He says it was a sign of opulence in the Middle Ages because sugar and spices were so expensive. An early version even served as a kind of energy bar for ancient Romans.

That fame came crashing down in the late 1960’s and 70s. Miller says Johnny Carson, a particularly big critic in the 80’s, may have driven a lot of the loaf’s scorn.

But Miller says: Just try it. You might be surprised.

For more information on this sweet loaf, check out Miller’s piece for The Conversation.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau at Boise State Public Radio.