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Marie Rudisill began her career on television at the green age of 89. She was a woman with stately cheekbones and hair the color of dried coconut peel. Rudisill first appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in December of 2000 while promoting a book of old family fruitcake recipes she'd released that year. Leno found her so charismatic that he invited her back onto the show repeatedly to host her own cooking segment. He christened her the “Fruitcake Lady.”
What Leno—and, by extension, America—had found in Rudisill was the perfect poster girl for the fruitcake. Here was a food so maligned in the American culinary terrain that its only possible cheerleader could be a reedy, craggy octogenarian. Like the fruitcake she represented, Rudisill was a punchline: barely worth taking seriously, yet somehow still alive out of sheer persistence.
The consensus surrounding fruitcake as a food to actively loathe did not begin with Rudisill’s appearance on television, though. That had been calcified long before Rudisill came on Leno’s show, as far back as the 1930s in the United States. It didn't end with her, either. These plummy, sodden mounds of dough—suffused with red and green glacé cherries, edged with spices and rum, and topped with skinny sliced almonds—have been reviled by most Americans for decades. But not all of us.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Rudisill, crotchety patron saint of the fruitcake, is related to one of the most famous American queer men of all time. She was an aunt of Truman Capote. Capote, effeminate and limp-wristed, could be considered the ideal target for the word fruitcake in its other, equally noxious meaning.
The expression "nutty as a fruitcake" has been sewn into common American parlance since as early as 1935. Fruitcake is something like the word faggot’s first cousin. To be nuts was to be mentally ill, after all, and queerness was, for a time, a flavor of mental illness. The common history of the moniker goes as follows: A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.
This word association is quite fun; it’s like rummaging through an old thesaurus from a blazingly shittier America. Recently, I began trying to trace the precise pathways through which this food became a pejorative, motivated by intense personal curiosity: I had grown up eating fruitcake and considering it a delicacy. My family is from the Indian state of West Bengal, where fruitcake is widely considered a food to cherish rather than to trash. The architecturally stodgy, pre-packaged variety that so many Americans seem to abhor was a food my family and I would eat with tea. Other families could have stuff from Entenmann's or Carvel; we preferred these tutti frutti cakes that came in rectangular aluminum packaging. We’d even eat it for breakfast. It was aseasonal, dislodged from Christmas. If doing so were nutritionally sound or socially permissible, we’d eat it every meal.
There are times when I look back at this aspect of my childhood and wonder if I was just a Bengali boy in a bubble. I was raised by two parents who taught me to eat Bengali food and speak in that native tongue, therefore impressing upon me a distinctly Bengali way of looking at the world. As a byproduct of this, I’d been siloed from truly internalizing the tastes and rhythms of white America. I remember an English-language coloring book from a relative in West Bengal that instructed I give Bugs Bunny a color that was 'gay', an innocent synonym for 'jolly.' I had no conception of what the word gay meant to most Americans, let alone the fact that it referred to sexuality at all, especially a form of sexuality that was regarded as an extension of madness. This was my rudimentary perception of the American English language at that time.
These two meanings of fruitcake may seem unrelated, and drawing a connective line between them may seem like a futile exercise in scraping for meaning where it just doesn't exist. Besides, my Bengali and queer selves rarely feel as if they have much in common. But as I consider the particular awful associative charge this word carries for so many, I'm tempted to defend fruitcake. Defending it forces me to put these two elements of myself in concert. If there is an edible emissary of my queer, Bengali self, it is fruitcake.
My father was born in the city of Kolkata, anglicized as Calcutta, three years after Indian independence from Britain. Though he dabbled in some healthy college Marxism, he was probably more bourgeois than he liked to admit. He largely parroted the traditions of British India given to him by a strict boarding school education.
He couldn’t shake certain British habits because he found pleasure in them. Among these was a taste for fruitcake. The food had been in Kolkata since the 19th century, imported by British colonial settlers and eaten primarily around Christmastime. In present-day Kolkata, one of the remaining vestiges of this Anglo-Indian cuisine is Nahoum and Son’s bakery, a store in operation since 1902 that’s owned by a small family of the city’s dwindling community of Baghdadi Jews. So good was Nahoum’s fruitcake that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury once came to the city and declared it the best he'd ever had in the world, even better than any he’d had in Britain. Nahoum and Son’s describe themselves as the "people's bakery," sitting at the crossroads of the groups who have lived in and passed through this city over the centuries.
West Bengal, under the ordinance of the Mughal Empire from the 16th century until the 18th century, first gained a reputation for a cuisine that revolved around sweet spices, nuts, and dried fruit. These were all derived from Persian food eaten by Mughal royalty. Afterwards, Kolkata became the seat of British colonial rule for two centuries. Cycling through it was a motley of ethnic groups—the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Armenian, the French—who turned the city into a vibrant culinary cauldron. Fruitcake dislodged itself from the Christian tradition it was steeped in to become a food eaten year-round and by anyone, regardless of religious association.
Even after the topple of British rule in India, fruitcake stuck to Kolkata’s soul like tar. Variants of this basic recipe populated numerous other bakeries in the city, and people, like my father’s mother, even began to cook it themselves at home, trading recipes. Some were more generous with the kishmish, or raisins, than others; a few added cashews in. In these years, my dad had fruitcake whenever he could.
It is under this specter that fruitcake blossomed into its own delicacy in the minds of many Bengalis like my father. Eventually, this gastronomical attraction would even reach their children, born in different countries. My parents had me eleven years after immigrating to New Jersey, where we lived a stone’s throw away from a few Indian supermarkets. A $3.50 fruitcake was never far out of reach.
Our favorite variety, though, was one cooked for us by a family friend we honestly despised. She was a willowy, stern auntie my parents tolerated as a friend. Like my parents, she had come to New Jersey shortly after her own arranged marriage in West Bengal. She could make a fruitcake better than any storebought variety. Hers had no starchy residue of baking soda that could be the small smear on those mass-produced versions. Sometimes, I believe the only reason we maintained a relationship with her was to get a tin of her fruitcake.
Some suspect that the association of fruit with sissiness began with a Caravaggio painting from 1593, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” It shows a young man with his cheeks flush, draping white cloth falling from his shoulders, frame fragile as a sparrow’s. He is clutching his basket of fruit like a queen would clutch her pearls.
The Caravaggio painting predated the popularization of fruitcake in British, and eventually American, slang. The use of “fruit” as a slur has origins lying in 19th century Polari, a British cant spoken by the subaltern: sex workers, seasteading sailors, and queers. Queer men of that era would use the word fruit among themselves, calling each other by the name, gently poking fun at their own feminine qualities others so despised.
But this word was stolen from them as it slouched into the mainstream. Suddenly, it was no longer tethered to the queers who owned it; over the next two centuries, it slowly dissolved into a term that heteros would use disparagingly against queer folk. When the slur “fruit” traveled to the United States by the 20th century, it fused with fruitcake. In the 1930s, the “fruitcake factory” became a site of physical, state-sanctioned violence against gay American men, essentially that era’s analog of modern-day conversion therapy: castration or lobotomies.
Fruit and fruitcake occupied this linguistic ghetto until the late 1970s, when Anita Bryant, a former Miss Oklahoma turned virulently homophobic spokeswoman, mounted a campaign to prevent gay men from becoming teachers in Florida. She wanted to "save the children" from the indoctrination of these crazy, fruity queers. Out of this rose a queer resistance contained in a single phrase: “Suck a fruit for Anita.” Once again, to be a fruit was a marker of strength.
I was a gangly little dweeb in middle school, total catnip for bullying. Though my large Bengali nose seemed to swallow my face, you could consider me the brown version of the kid in Caravaggio’s painting, just some depressingly weak-limbed wisp of a boy. My very demeanor telegraphed vulnerability.
In spite of this utter dorkdom, I had somehow managed to ingratiate myself with the popular girls in my private school. It was one of these best friends who first called me fruitcake in sixth grade. I was so parched for her attention and validation that I stomached the cruelest of insults from her. (I’m compelled to describe this friendship in terms of Stockholm Syndrome: I was spellbound by the attention my captor paid to me.) Once, while confessing my love for Britney Spears, there it was, relayed with blasé inelegance: “You’re such a fruitcake.”
I didn’t quite know how to process this at first because I didn’t even know what she even meant. “You mean, like, the dessert?” I asked her. I must have been laughing to myself, grasping the sheer stupidity of how I sounded. I almost wanted to say thank you! Come on, now; fruitcake was good. I’d even eaten it the night before with my parents.
“No, it means you’re gay as hell,” she told me. She then took care, as much care as any emotional tormentor could, to explain to me the precise machinations of this word and what it meant, how fruitcake was among one of the worst things anyone could call you, maybe even worse than fag.
Nowadays, distance has given me the ability to say it with a touch of humor: I was bullied, even in an American private school! But it was in this middle school moment that I, still unaware of my own sexuality but cognizant of the fact that my mannerisms were rather genteel, realized I needed to navigate this social minefield accordingly.
My chosen method of survival was not neutering these aspects of myself that had attracted such attention, but instead, accenting them in bold colors. I intensified my queer drawl; I wore tighter jeans. The history of my queer forefathers who sucked a fruit for Anita did not reach me in suburban New Jersey, but I would somehow enact this trajectory in my own life through harnessing the word fruitcake into something of an armor. Any shame and loathing that could come from being attached to this word was eclipsed by my desire to compose myself with fortitude and grit, and, in turn, not let the word fruitcake faze me.
Gradually, you could say I even reclaimed this word, and on my own terms. Without knowing it, I had followed what these queer forebearers had carved out for me, morphing an insult into a talisman of strength. I'd grown to love the word fruitcake as much as I loved the food itself.
By high school, being called a fruitcake became as linguistically obsolete as calling someone a “friend of Dorothy” or a “square.” I haven’t heard it used in years. It seems that the use of the word, by homophobes and queers alike, has fallen from grace.
One fall afternoon this year, I was sitting at a table with my colleagues, six white women. We’d all convened to brainstorm what compelling Christmas-themed content we could scribe this year. We had to jot down any phrases that immediately came to mind when we heard the word 'Christmas,' prompting one of my colleagues to scribble the word fruitcake. And so began a chorus of non-Bengali people articulating the extent of their distaste for my beloved food: How did fruitcake become so loathed? Why do people still eat it? Who even likes it, anyway?
I felt as if I didn't exist in this moment; it was a form of my middle school oblivion rushing back in adulthood. I had spent years coming to terms with the fact that this word meant something different to me than it did to most others, and coaching myself into a self-acceptance. Did I have to do this all over again?
I felt territorial around this word once again, and this episode emboldened my determination to defend a food so many have befouled. Each Christmas, it operates like clockwork: Interest in declaring revulsion of fruitcake surges around this time of year, and the stenographers who occupy food media rush to populate lists with alternatives to fruitcake. It is treated as a matter of clinical service journalism. No one could possibly have a gastronomical appreciation for fruitcake, and we must craft our articles accordingly. At times, I have felt this tendency to be indicative of the greater problem with a food media that is quick to cast aspersions on a certain dish and build an imagined consensus without proper input from any voices who may dissent. Whose tastebuds are the arbiters against which everyone else’s should be measured? I will not be surprised if, one Christmas in the near future, we will see an article that couches a love for fruitcake in the language of discovery.
It should follow, then, that there is precious little to attest to fruitcake's importance to Bengali identity save for one short article by Sandip Roy, an editor of English-language Indian publication Firstpost. “The British are long gone from Calcutta, but they left behind the fruitcake,” Roy suggested in NPR two years ago. “The West jokes about indestructible fruitcake as the gift that keeps on giving, but Calcutta—the old British capital—embraces it.”
Roy, a queer Bengali man like me, may as well have been speaking my own story aloud. I haven’t been to Kolkata in twenty years, but my father brought the spirit of that city with him, and entombed in that spirit is the great love for fruitcake. The affection many Bengalis have for fruitcake has been eclipsed by the peculiar mainstreaming of its odiousness. I can’t help but believe that this has been aided by the guardians who make decisions in this industry I've suddenly found myself in, orchestrating the desecration of a food I consider inextricable from my personhood.
So consider this my treatise, my mission statement. Here I am, setting the record straight about what fruitcake "means to me," how it becomes a site where these two divergent aspects of myself reconcile. But I fear I'm speaking into a void. I'm aware that my voice isn't enough to rectify the great misunderstanding that has followed fruitcake in the American imaginary.
Traditions are difficult to unlearn, particularly when they're rooted in the fun American sport of hatred. I've recently come across a particularly perplexing cultural tradition: Every January, since 1995, the community of Manitou Springs in Colorado hosts such a thing as a Fruitcake Toss. It is the stuff of my own nightmares, involving fruitcakes that soar across fields like javelins. I won’t deny anyone the pleasure of despising fruitcake, but this organized humiliation of fruitcake is obviously distressing. Why would anyone want to dispose of fruitcakes? My family could use them! Please. Lunge your unwanted fruitcakes into my arms; catapult them into my mouth. If you don’t want fruitcake, I’ll take it.