Even self-proclaimed ‘foodies’ disdain the much-maligned fruitcake

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The much-maligned fruitcake is being maligned by a whole new generated. (One  Pony/Bigstock)

The much-maligned fruitcake is being maligned by a whole new generated. (One Pony/Bigstock)

Warning: Material in this interview is not very scientific, but it could spark some fun conversations over the holidays.

A Philadelphia food marketing professor says millennials find fruitcake gross and want nothing to do with it. His undergraduates at Saint Joseph’s University despise everything about it — from the colorful candied fruits down to the tough brown cake itself — yet he said they consider themselves to be broad-minded foodies.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn visited Sean Coary at the university’s test kitchen on Hawk Hill to learn more.

JL – What do you mean by “foodie?”

SC – We look at foodie as someone who loves new experiences, who loves to try new food items, but then also really does the research, maybe on where the food is being sourced from or what ingredients are in the product. They just have a desire to learn more about food either in the kitchen, nutritional-wise, or at a new restaurant.

JL – You conducted informal research with your undergraduate students, and it was a lesson on preconceptions and attitudes, which are very important to learn about in a marketing class. Why pick on the ever-vulnerable fruitcake?

SC – Much of my research is on authenticity, and we were talking about how do we advertise authentic foods, and, around the holiday season, fruitcake is a very authentic food. And it just kind of popped up that students had very strong opinions about the fruitcake, and we started to investigate it even further.

JL – And you found that some number of students, I guess about 60 undergraduates, find fruitcake to be disgusting, even repulsive, but fewer than 5 percent of these students had even tasted fruitcake – ever. How could they indict the cake without ever tasting it?

SC – My initial thought was ‘what did this fruitcake ever do to you?’ Did you have a bad experience as a child? Does your grandmother always give you one? Some of the students talked about how they’ve seen a fruitcake, and it was sitting out, but no one touched it, that it was just alone. And they took it as a signal where, if my parents aren’t eating it, it can’t taste good. And they took that as a signal of quality and just kind of ran with that opinion that if no one else is eating the fruitcake, then why should I? So I thought that was almost ironic that they had such strong opinions for something that they never even tried.

JL – Do we do that in public polls, in public opinion moments?

SC — I think it’s one of those “the group thinks,” where we hear that fruitcake is disgusting or nasty or old, and we just kind of believe the public opinion without even checking the facts. In this case, that would be actually trying the fruitcake.

JL – Well, fruitcake has forever been the butt of jokes. Listeners may have heard the Johnny Carson moment: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” He’s referring to perpetual regifting on the part of people who don’t like fruitcake. What does this small-scale survey say about how the court of public opinion from the past can shape fruitcake reputation presently and going forward?

SC — Again, this is one of those “the past still lives on” — and they just assume it must be true. If everyone feels this way, I also feel this way because it’s almost one of those “safety in numbers” things. Because what if I really do like fruitcake? Then I’m that one person in the class or that one person, the family member, that really likes it, and what does that say about me and my palate and my taste in foods?

JL – What was the overall takeaway from this survey?

SC – We talk about people being foodies and wanting to try new foods, and our students love trying new experiences. They love trying new foods, but when we brought up one of the most authentic food items around the holiday seasons — fruitcakes — the students were very apprehensive to even try it, ever. As foodies, we strive for authenticity in our foods, so it was just one of those really cool contradictions of the foodie term.

JL – Anything else?

SC — The overwhelming majority of students were ready for the fruitcake just to die. They thought that this was a trend that just needed to go away, that it should have ended years ago, and there were very, very few students willing to stand up and try to start fruitcake on a new path.

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