What We Eat When We’re Eating at Christmastime: A Reading List

"Fruitcake" by Emily Balsley (CC BY-NC 2.0).

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

“A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote

’Tis the season! A time for awkwardly posed Santa photos, awkwardly getting tipsy at office holiday parties, awkwardly offensive carols, and awkwardly feigning excitement over receiving a Harry & David fruitcake. For many of us who celebrate Christmas, foods are as closely bound to the experience as gift-giving. And making fun of fruitcake has become a time-honored tradition — though thanks to the success of this dedicated fruitcake besmirchment campaign, I suspect many of us have never actually tasted, let alone received or re-gifted, a traditional fruitcake.

This reading list celebrates oft-maligned holiday foods like fruitcake and mincemeat pie, along with unlikely new candidates like White Castle and KFC.

1. “A Short History of Fruitcake,” (Robert Sietsema, Village Voice, November 2002)

Always start with the basics — if you’re going to mock, know what you’re making fun of. What is fruitcake? And maybe more importantly, why is fruitcake? Sietsema gives a nice overview and taste-tests cakes from some of the more popular purveyors, although this isn’t an underdog story — pardon the spoiler alert, but he doesn’t become a fruitcake aficionado at the end. For that, check out the roundtable conversation “In Defense of Fruitcake” (The Thinking Housewife, November 2013), with seven people who really, really like fruitcake. And if you find their enthusiasm infectious, the piece offers a recipe and recommendations for the best pre-prepared versions.

2. “Just Desserts,” (Katy Vine, Texas Monthly, January 2016)

Fruitcake scandal: two words you don’t expect to need to write together, like “eggnog catastrophe” or “Nativity juggernaut.” This piece isn’t actually about fruitcake itself but is a fascinating look at Sandy Jenkins, an employee at the Collin Street Fruitcake Bakery — arguably the world’s most famous fruitcake bakery — who embezzled over $16 million. The post-indictment estate sale included “$14,000 gold Dunhill lighters, a Cartier silver cigarette case, an Atmos clock, boxes of crystal and silver, and designer handbags,” along with “a frighteningly large Hummel figurines collection,” all bought with fruitcake money.

3. “Christmas at White Castle,” (Arianna Rebolini, Eater, December 2016)

Not all food traditions are shared — some are family-specific, like the annual Rebolini trip to White Castle, and are made special via their specificity. This essay, part of Eater’s great “Life in Chains” series, is a lovely chronicle of just that kind of familial lore:

I don’t remember the first time we ran through this routine, but my mom told me recently we drove through spontaneously; my siblings and I were starving after picking out a tree and White Castle happened to be across the street. As for the rest of the year, we didn’t live very close to the neighborhood. The White Castle Christmas dinner was never magic, I realized — just an arbitrary decision made by my parents which became meaningful through repetition.

4. “How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan,” (Molly Osberg, Talking Points Memo, December 2014)

If White Castle can become a Christmas tradition, why not KFC? Christmas chicken is so ubiquitous in Japan that “[o]n Christmas Eve, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s lines will snake down the block,” increasing KFC’s December revenue by a magnitude of ten over every other month of the year. In a country with no particular tie to Christmas and no baggage around the Colonel and his representation of the historical American South, KFC has pulled off an impressive rebranding. Have you pre-ordered your Christmas chicken meal (cake and champagne included!)?

And yes, all the Colonel Sanders statues will be dressed in Santa outfits.

5. “Why Eating Chinese Food on Christmas is a Sacred Tradition for American Jews,” (Marc Tracy, Tablet, December 2012)

Brooklyn’s Mile End deli is known for its Montréal Jewish food, and specifically for its better-than-pastrami smoked meat. They’ll be open on Christmas Day, but the smokers will get the day off* — it’s time for the wontons. Chinese food on Christmas became an American Jewish tradition in part — but not only — because Chinese restaurants tended to be open on Christmas. Per Tracy, there’s also the inherent suitability of the food (no dairy to worry about!), mixed with a hint of racial superiority. Whatever the origins, it’s become a cultural touchstone for many American Jews, both religious and secular.

(You know who else eats Chinese food on Christmas? Chinese people. Take a stroll through a Chinatown that is no more in Eddie Lin’s “A Chinatown Kid Remembers Ghosts of Christmas Past,” (LA Weekly, December 2016).)

*Okay, not entirely — there’s smoked meat in the fried rice.

6. “The Real American Pie,” (Cliff Doerksen, Chicago Reader, December 2009)

Mincemeat pie is now (1) thought of as a holiday food and (2) made with dried fruit and spices, but that wasn’t always the case. The original mince pie was meat, and booze, and pie crust, and was considered “an American institution” and “unquestionably the monarch of pies,” a title that befits a foodstuff made with those ingredients. The history of mincemeat pie tracks the history of America, from our founding to the industrial revolution to Prohibition and beyond, and it’s bizarre how truly forgotten mincemeat pie now is. Apples get all the love the rest of the year, but take a few moments this Christmas to remember the mince.

Seasons’ eatings!