traces its origins to ancient Rome. It would not be the holiday food people love to hate if they
tried one made the traditional way, suggested a Kansas State
University rare books librarian who studies the history of traditional
associate professor for the university archives and special collections
at K-State Libraries, has studied the history of traditional holiday
foods, including the figgy pudding requested in "We Wish You a Merry
Christmas," the drink referred to in "Here We Come A-Wassailing," the
sugarplums that danced in children's heads in "Twas the Night Before
Christmas," and the once-beloved fruitcake.
‘People should get into their family cookbooks or the cookbook collection at their nearest library to see what their great-grandparents and others ate at Christmas.’
"You see fruitcakes on
ugly Christmas sweaters," Adams said. "It has evolved from being
something enjoyable to being very maligned."
Adams said the reason
for the fruitcake's devaluation in public opinion is because of the
quality and type of ingredients that are used. Today's recipe is nearly
unrecognizable from the one of the past, said Adams, who can point to
recipes found in cookbooks dating back to 1487 that are part of K-State
Libraries' Morse Department of Special Collections.
According to Adams, the Romans'
fruitcake included pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and raisins in a barley
mash. By the Middle Ages in Europe, additional dried fruits were added,
as well as honey and spices. Adams said the fruitcakes of today, except
for the refined sugar and candied fruits, would be familiar to most
people who lived in the 1700s and 1800s.
The original fruitcake
was thoroughly saturated with alcohol, which acts as a preservative. The
cake part of the original fruitcake included flour and eggs. It used
lard or suet, which act as preservatives, instead of butter, which can
become rancid over time. Adams said this focus on preservation is
consistent with most traditional Christmas foods, which came from the
need in older times to preserve foods through the winter.
trend is also seen in jam cookies and sugarplums — the latter of which
were considered an ideal treat for children because they did not contain
alcohol, unlike many other traditional Christmas foods. This is likely
why they were connected to children in the 1823 poem, "Twas the Night
Mincemeat pie also was a preservation-focused
holiday treat. Adams clarifies that these pies do contain meat, as well
as suet and dried fruits — especially raisins, which he said are a
"must" in every mince pie.
The traditional puddings of England,
including the figgy pudding we continue to sing about, were much
different from the puddings that are popular in the U.S. today,
according to Adams. The traditional puddings were more cakelike and
often included raisins or other dried fruits — hence the figs in figgy
pudding. These puddings were soaked in plenty of alcohol, usually rum.
Families would gather during Advent and light the pudding cakes on fire
to create a celebratory flaming dessert, like flambé.
warm Christmas punch, is a once-popular Christmas drink. Adams said
wassail was meant to be enjoyed around the fireplace. Because of its
warm-serving temperature and its inclusion of alcohol, which warms the
body, it was not uncommon in the U.S. as late as the 19th century to
find people traveling around, visiting relatives and drinking wassail to
"I'd encourage everybody to get into their family
cookbooks or the cookbook collection at their nearest library to see
what their great-grandparents and others ate at Christmas," Adams said.
"I'd also encourage folks to try making different foods. We sometimes
get too set in our ways, but try something new — maybe something that
was once popular and has been forgotten."