Certain foods are synonymous with the holiday season: A plump roasted turkey at the center of the dinner table, a juicy, glazed Christmas ham, some steaming tamales, a platter full of freshly-baked gingerbread men...and a fruitcake.
Or at least, a few jokes about fruitcake.
Long ridiculed in literature and popular culture from Charles Dickens to Johnny Carson, the once-noble fruitcake, which has origins that date back to ancient Egypt -- has been relegated to nothing more than an infamous yuletide yuk-yuk.
But each December, for the last decade, the eastern California town of Independence celebrates all that is fruitcake -- fruits, nuts, and all -- with its annual Independence Fruitcake Festival.
A cryptic sign hangs outside the town's American Legion Hall on Edwards Street, bearing nothing but a mid-December date and the words: "Admission: Fruitcake or Egg Nog."
The event, which started in 2005, attracts a mostly-regional crowd coming in from U.S. Highway 395 along California's Eastern Sierra to share their latest fruity and nutty baked creations. The festival encourages attendees to dress and bake appropriately to the theme of each year, which in the past included an outer space theme, a Mexican fiesta theme, and a 1970s disco theme. This year's festival, on Saturday, December 12, boasts a comic book superhero theme, a la San Diego Comic-Con.
With the hall decorated in theme, the fete includes a program of traditional rituals practiced each year: The entrance of the Fruitcake King, who presides over the event, the introduction of the Archival Fruitcake -- a now-10-year-old fruitcake amended each year with brandy and powdered sugar and sealed inside a Cold War-era Civil Defense barrel stored in a cool basement during the rest of the year. The Fruitcake King selects a willing attendee to eat a piece of it to formally kick-off the festival.
"It is my opinion that the flavor has improved considerably under long term storage," said Fruitcake Festival organizer and co-founder Nancy Masters.
The night is also filled with music, dancing, and laughter, but the mainstay of the festival is the fruitcake competition. And only in Independence, the seat of Inyo county that's home to a historic 1921 courthouse, can host a festival where the judges of the fruitcake competition are actual superior court judges. Awards are handed out in various categories: The farthest-traveled fruitcake (festival entries have come as far as Australia and Uzbekistan), the oldest fruitcake, the nuttiest, and the best according to the annual theme, among others. And though the judges sample the entries, they do not judge an overall best fruitcake.
"It's not about what tastes the best," said Masters, who works as the director of the county's library system. "They all taste so good and so different It's always the other categories that aren't related to that kind of judgment."
Having attended the festival each year and tried the fruitcakes (attendees can eat them after the competition) since 2012, Johnny Carson's old joke that "There's only one fruitcake in the world" isn't entirely true. While the more traditionally-made fruitcakes taste more or less the same, each year's theme brings out the creativity of the fruitcake makers. During the 2012 Mexican-themed "Fiesta de Fruitcake" festival, one of the entries consisted of a tequila-infused fruitcake in the shape of an Aztec eagle. And last year's disco-themed event featured a "fondue fruitcake" with fruitcake cubes on spears ready for dipping in a white chocolate fondue pot, echoing an iconic food trend from the 1970s.
Aside from its ancient roots, the first documented fruitcake recipe dates back to the Roman Empire, and variants have spread across Europe. The United Kingdom developed the familiar archetype of a dense dark brown-colored cake baked with candied fruits, nuts, spices, and usually imbibed with liquor. The British variant of the fruitcake was propagated across the Commonwealth, including this one-time colony.
In the Charles Dickens' book, Martin Chuzzlewit, the title character described the fruitcake as a "geological homemade cake." The television era broadcasted the bad-mouthing of the baked good to an even wider audience in early shows such as Father Knows Best.
The Independence Civic Club, an organization that stages social and civic events to the unincorporated town of some 600 people, started the Fruitcake Festival ten years ago because of its tarnished image.
"We were reminiscing about foods that no one liked and we thought that [the fruitcake's reputation] was unfair," said Masters, who also serves as the organization's president. She added that the idea was discussed half-jokingly, but an article on the festival plan in the local newspaper solidified the commitment to put on the event.
My first experience with the festival came rather accidentally. In December of 2012, following a disappointing event in my life, I chose the Owens Valley, a place I had never been to before, as a place to go into self-imposed exile, and purposely stayed in the smallest town that still had food and lodging. After meeting some of the locals, they kept asking me, "So, are you going to the Fruitcake Festival on Saturday?" As a native Angeleno accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the big city, I thought it would be an interesting slice of exotic small-town Americana that I'd never see in L.A. The journalist in me insisted on taking photos and videos of the event, where I met Masters for the first time and conducted a brief video interview with her. At the end of the night, as the organizers cleaned up the hall, my conversations struck up new friendships, and Independence has since turned into my small town home-away-from-home.
"The Fruitcake Festival seems to bring people together," said Bryan Kostors, a USC grad student who divides his time between Los Angeles and Independence. When he was first dating his wife, whose family is involved in the Civic Club, he was soon drafted into the Fruitcake Festival fold and now plays the role of the Fruitcake King at the event.
Located in the Owens Valley, some 225 miles north of Los Angeles, Independence is more known for its century-long contentious association with the nearby Los Angeles Aqueduct, or what Southern California skiers call "that place where you fill up gas on the way to Mammoth." But the festival, with recent attention from outlets like National Public Radio to The Washington Times, could be just the thing that puts this town on the map.
The 2015 Independence Fruitcake Festival takes place on Saturday, December 12 from 6 to 10 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 201 S. Edwards Street (Highway 395), Independence, CA. Admission is free, but guests must bring either a fruitcake (preferably homemade) or a bottle of eggnog (either alcoholic or non-alcoholic).