Food Science

This Fruitcake Is Over 100 Years Old

August 15, 2017

Robert Falcon Scott loved fruitcakes, particularly the Huntley & Palmers–brand variety made in Britain. So he’d bring them with him on expeditions to Antarctica, where he and his team conducted the three-year Terra Nova expedition starting in 1910, with the intention of being the first humans to reach the South Pole.

They got to their destination by January of 1912, but Scott found he and his team were beaten to it by a Norwegian team who'd arrived just 34 days before them. Scott’s team died on the way back from the pole. They left numerous belongings behind in the Cape Adare huts, the first buildings built in Antarctica, where his team had lived.

Scott was a man after my own heart; it’s long been rather gauche to openly love fruitcake, that bewilderingly disdained dessert. Those of us who love it are a small but mighty bunch. If you’re one of them, please join the club. There’s a lot of room.

Here’s something fun: Last week, the team behind the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand-based nonprofit, excavated this 106-year-old tin of cake and found it was more or less unspoiled. It’s one of 1,500 artifacts the AHT discovered in Cape Adare since last year, and the project, wherein the team combs through the ruins of the huts, is in its final two weeks.

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"The last objects were a handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins,” Lizzie Meek, one of the team members, said in a statement. “Finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake among them was quite a surprise. It's an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern day trips to the Ice.”

The team subjected the tin to a rigorous chemical treatment, but they didn’t dare touch the cake, which Meek said “looked and smelled edible” if you left aside the faint hint of rancid butter. She attributed this fortitude to Antarctica's subzero climate, which insulated the fruitcake.

So now you know: If you’ve had a tin of fruitcake decaying in your cold attic, it may very well be edible. Here's an anecdote that offers proof of what I’ve long known to be true about fruitcake, that remarkably resilient food; if all else disappears, fruitcake will endure. It’s been no fun at all to see American news outlets treat this occasion as yet another an opportunity to besmirch this dessert once again, a tiresome thoroughfare of food writing. How boring. As I've said before, there isn’t a fruitcake I wouldn’t try. Barely edible is edible enough for me.

Learn more about the Antarctic Heritage Trust here.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

1 Comment

AntoniaJames August 15, 2017
Have you tried a Jamaican Black Cake? I grew up eating traditional Southern fruitcakes as well as our family's preferred cake for many decades, this Kentucky Whiskey Cake which I've made regularly over the past 30 years, but this Jamaican Black Cake (Mimi Sheraton) has recently stolen my heart: Its secret may lie in the prunes, which improve both the flavor and texture of the cake. You don't taste "prunes", you just taste, "Whoa, what's in this fruitcake?" ;o) P.S. Incidentally, both recipes include instructions for making mini-loaves, so you can spread the love.

And, for the record, I distribute to friends and family 3 dozen or so mini panforti di Siena every December, as well, made with two different recipes. Those are, after all fruitcakes, made irresistible with a bit of good chocolate and several kinds of toasted nuts.