Fruitcake is a big part of Christmas in the U.S. but it's also wildly unpopular. Still, these brick-like cakes start popping up in grocery stores every December without fail. Fruitcake has been around for centuries and was passed to the U.S. from English traditions. Fruitcake has a positive reputation in the U.K. (fruitcake is traditionally the flavor of choice for royal weddings), so why do Americans despise this treat so much?
Image from Claxton Fruit Cake
Fruitcake is basically just a dense cake filled with candied fruit and nuts. No one really takes issue with these separate elements, but many people are not happy with this combination. A lot of fruitcake haters have never even tried it because of its bad reputation, so some of the negativity comes from word of mouth.
One of the strange things about fruitcake is its shelf life. When you compare the shelf lives of fruitcake and a regular cake, the difference is pretty extreme. freshly baked fruitcake can last about one month in a cupboard and up to six months in the fridge. A lot of people don't leave cake around long enough to find out how long it will be good for, but for comparison, a chocolate cake will only last for a couple of days sitting out and one week in the fridge.
Six months is a very long time for a baked good to last, but fruitcakes have been known to last for much longer than this. One family has kept a fruitcake for well over 100 years for sentimental reasons and occasionally samples it. As proven by panics over fast food not decomposing, people tend to be suspicious of food that doesn't go bad. People tend to think that for a food to last so long it must contain dangerous chemicals.
Image from Good Nature Travel
Some people blame a 1985 Johnny Carson joke for fruitcake's reputation. Carson joked about fruitcake always being regifted and said that there was really only one fruitcake in the world that people kept giving away. For this joke to be memorable it must have held some truth at the time, so it's safe to assume that fruitcake already had a bad rap.
Cake and a little bit of fruit (usually only one kind) can pair together very nicely, but adding a bunch of different kinds in large quantities seems a bit overwhelming. The fact that it's super sugary candied fruit definitely doesn't help fruitcake out. Tastes and preferences evolve over time, so this must have been an appealing way to make cake at one point in time that just fell out of favor after the tradition was already set. Even though we joke about how terrible it is, bakeries that make fruitcake are still in business, so there must be some people who actually look forward to this part of Christmas.