And so it begins, the ritual insults of the gift that time forgot, the humble yet seemingly inedible confection called fruitcake.
There are gag fruitcakes like this inflatable one ("The fruitcake they'll actually want to get!") and corny fruitcake jokes -- there's even a Society for the Preservation and Protection of Fruitcake.
But when did fruitcake become the punch line to a hundred jokes (and not Borscht Belt stuff either: a Jewish friend of mine assures me that fruitcake is strictly for the goyim)?
Food historians suggest that fruitcake -- any cake in which dried fruits and nuts do battle with the batter -- is older than Moses. Ancient Egyptians entombed fruitcake, while Romans carried it into battle, probably for the same reason: Fruitcake is built to last, and did, well into medieval times.
It was in the relatively recent 18th century (yesterday in fruitcake time) that fruitcake achieved totemic status. It was then that nut-harvesting farmers collected fruits and nuts in a cakelike substance to save for the next harvest -- as a sort of good-luck charm if you will.
Well, there's your problem right there: Any cake that is not to be eaten doesn't deserve to be categorized as food. This puts fruitcake in the same category as plastic fruit and Jell-O molds, which is perhaps why giving someone a fruitcake is deemed an insult in some circles.
America's love/hate affair with fruitcake began in the early part of the 20th century when the first mail-order fruitcakes became fashionable gifts for a dispersed population. Perhaps it was meant to invoke a kind of homey nostalgia; Truman Capote waxed rhapsodic about it in "A Christmas Memory" when he recalled an aged relative, her breath smoking the windowpane, exclaiming, "Oh my! It's fruitcake weather?" Doesn't it make you want to go home?
Well, no. Somewhere along the line, fruitcake became the equivalent of the tie on Father's Day, a gift that said the giver didn't care enough to think about what to send. And like any other food, or food-like product, it was often mass-produced, using fruits barely discernible as such, and packed into cans as heavy as landmines.
Of course there are artisanal alternatives, hand-crafted by grannies and monks. Isabelle of Mondo Fruitcake began her site in defense of the foodstuff: "Since I was a little girl I've always liked fruitcake," she writes, "a specific fruitcake -- the fruitcake of the Gethsemani monks in Trappist, Ky. I've grown up with it and even now look forward to getting one as a gift from my mom every Christmas." Each year the site rates the best fruitcakes out there (with Gethsemani and Collin Street Bakery leading the pack) and you can still find gourmet recipes online. Yes, the authors of many of those recipes are no longer with us -- but the fruit (and nuts) of their labors lives on.
Sean Elder's writing has appeared in Gourmet, Food & Wine, the New York Times Magazine and numerous other publications. Visit him at seanelder.com. Editor's note - Slashfood contributor Dr. Brent Ridge makes the best artisanal fruitcake (pictured above) we've ever tasted. Buy it online at Beekman1802.com.