Days Gone Bite: Fruitcake

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Everyone's heard the doorstop joke, as well as the one about a single fruitcake being regifted over the centuries. Yes, and if you blast through the outer layer, you find strata that would fascinate geologists.

And they are ancient. Some say the Roman legions carried fruitcake as a daily ration...which perhaps explains why they had such a tough time subjugating the Franks...well, the Gauls, but they became Franks, then French. And with ammunition running low, John Paul Jones was just about to surrender to the HMS Serapis. Then a seaman discovered barrels of fruitcake. So Jones shouted his famous "I have not yet begun to fight" line and battered the British vessel into submission with rock hard Christmas treats.

OK, so I made that bit up.

Really, this much-maligned cake deserves better. It was an early form of preserved meal, allowing our ancestors to savor nuts and fruit long after they would have begun to rot. Today's versions are still capable of resting for a year or more if soaked in liquor every few months.

Although different styles exist, including the dark and somber version you buy in tins at Kroger, they generally consist of nuts, candied fruit, citrus peel, honey or molasses, a little dough and a helping of spice. The flavors--nutty, pungent, sweet and rich--seem to speak of winter, holidays, good cheer and all that.

And, if made from scratch or purchased from a baker that cares, fruitcake can be difficult to resist...especially when drenched with alcohol. Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana sells 1.5 to 2 million of the ridiculed cake each year, for instance.

Of course, theirs is pretty good--especially for something not made at home.

To make or buy a fruitcake is to partake in centuries of tradition. It reaches into the past and brings old flavors to life. And for some people, it wouldn't be the holidays without at least one reluctant bite.

Or you could keep one in your car, just in case. They say a fruitcake kept handy by Ray Harroun saved the day when, in the waning laps of the 1911 Indy 500, his tire blew and...Never mind.

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