No one knows when the first one was made or how long it gathered dust before anyone dared taste it. But like nuclear weapons, my generation has grown fearful of its invention - especially during the Christmas season.
It's the one blemish on the yuletide celebration, the only Christmas goody capable of conjuring up nightmarish memories from an otherwise happy childhood.I'm talking, of course, about fruitcake - the La Brea Tar Pit of food.
"You don't eat it, you excavate it," says my good friend G.R. "Doc" Taylor. Doc knows. As a youth raised in the Southwest, he was actually forced to eat a piece of sweaty fruitcake when he was five.
Unfortunately, he says, our increasingly vicious society has prompted fruitcake's renewed ooze from obscurity to popularity. It's become the perfect gift for the person you sent a dozen dead roses to last Valentine's Day. And parents have found that threatening their children with a piece of fruitcake in their stockings is much more effective at improving behavior than warnings about coal and twigs.
"To adults, whose taste buds have been burned, frozen, chilled, pickled and otherwise mortified, the taste may be palatable," Doc says. "But to a kid, who still can recognize what is icky, it can be an experience in terror. Each touch of the fork reveals some new gleaming nugget of terror waiting to leap into your mouth and explode."
In Utah, the popularity of fruitcake can be traced to the Mormon edict of having food storage. "For Mormons, a fruitcake is a two-year supply - you only need one."
Doc believes fruitcakes never were meant to be eaten but rather mailed repeatedly in canisters as Christmas gifts.
"The recipient opens the can to make sure of its contents. Then, buoyed up by a sense of gratitude at receiving a gift he can mail on and relieved he doesn't have to eat it, he mails it to someone else. That is what is known as Christmas cheer."
But someone long ago didn't catch on, and the fruitcake was eaten rather than mailed. The rest is history.
"Age is of no consequence," Doc says of fruitcakes believed to have been circulating in the mail for years. "In a way, this is true, since after a certain age the flavor begins to fade, which can only be a blessing. The fruitcake's consistency then moves toward that of a brick and away from that of cough syrup mixed with gelatin and the contents of a vacuum-cleaning bag."
Doc realizes it would require legislation, but he believes fruitcakes should be rounded up annually and hauled to the desert near Tooele where they can be disposed of properly.