You've heard the jokes.

"What are 10 good uses for a fruitcake? A Christmas tree stand, an anvil, a fallout shelter . . ."So why, then, is Harry and David, the nation's biggest food cataloger, selling more fruitcake than ever this Christmas? Blame the baby boomers.

"As people get older, their palates get more sophisticated," says Bill Williams, the chief executive of Bear Creek Corp., Harry and David's parent company.

Despite the wisecracks over its brick-like consistency, fruitcakes are enjoying a booming business this Christmas.

Harry and David says fruitcake sales are up 20 percent to nearly 100,000 this year, while Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, the industry leader, plans to ship 1.6 million cakes to more than 200 countries.

Fruitcake originated in ancient Egypt and was cherished as an essential food for the afterlife. Collin Street Bakery has been making fruitcake since 1896, and its global notoriety began when a Collin employee slipped fruitcakes into the luggage of Ringling Bros. Circus performers before a world tour.

Now fruitcake fans include Princess Caroline of Monaco, singer Lyle Lovett and "Wheel of Fortune" letter-turner Vanna White.

Still, fruitcakes seem to get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

"I think fruitcake is misunderstood," says Collin president Bob McNutt, whose grandfather bought the Texas business in 1946. "There is no standard of identity."

Fruitcake could be compared to religion - everyone likes his own. The monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Carlton, Ore., make a dense cake that is soaked in 120-proof brandy and aged for three months.

At Harry and David, the fruitcake confection is made with a recipe bought in 1957 from Tom Clark of California Inc. Nuts, candied cherries, candied pineapple and other ingredients are mixed and scooped by hand into paper-lined pans.

Each pan is then carefully inspected to ensure the cherries are evenly spaced and the nuts face up.