A bad fruitcake is a paperweight. A doorstop. A brick. It looks homemade, but it tastes mass-mailed. Dry, heavy, dense, and vaguely ugly. And you can wrap the one you bake yourself any way you want, put it in a most lovely box and ship it off to all parts of the continent, but that does not make it good.
So why keep at it at the holidays? Are fruitcakers that obtuse? Hardly. For one thing, they're working an ancient craft: Fruitcake first appeared in ancient Rome and came back strong in 18th-century Europe, following especially large nut harvests. More important, great fruitcake, though a rarity, is sublime; moist but not sloppy wet, sweet but with a hint of salt, it features morsels of a good chef's best secrets. That's why I try a piece of every fruitcake in the holiday yard. Not because I'm fond of lousy maraschino cherries or wads of orange peels. I like tradition most when it ignores the standard obligations. I don't want a familiar fruitcake. I look for the best one, and every year that takes me to a different holiday place.
Last Christmas I stood in a friend's kitchen as wisps of snow drifted without urgency in the sky. Matt was wearing a sweatsuit. I had on a tie. I'd stopped by to drop off a bottle of Champagne. Matt's a chef, an Irishman who's always told me the crumbs of fruitcake belong on a table with the dregs of Guinness or the last sip of whiskey. "Try this," he said, sliding one slice of a particularly light-colored bread across the counter. We were two weeks from the actual day, five days from the next party, out of earshot of holiday music. "Your recipe?" I asked. "My mom taught me," he said. "I guess it's hers." I took one bite and knew I had found the best fruitcake of the year
. It was a tumble-down-comfort-chew. I would have eaten it with a snifter of brandy or a glass of milk or a handful of snow. It was salty enough that you might have served it with cucumber, but sweet, absolutely a fine dessert, I could tell. "Lemon rinds cured in ouzo," he told me. "Mascarpone cheese, dried currants, a little bit of olive oil." I couldn't believe it. Good, I told him, it was good, so good. "Ah, you never know with fruitcake," he said, "how it'll turn out, who'll even eat it. But I do it every year still, just like my mother, just like my sister. I do it and hope for the best." I chewed. I told him that I knew fruitcake that way, too, that I knew it to be an act of faith.