Hear the one about the fruitcake made in 1911? It's still a holiday joke

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2008 - 10:21 PM

Pierre Girard got a gag gift that lives up to its name. It keeps on giving - and it occasionally makes people gag.

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A fruitcake circa1911 is the centerpiece at most of Pierre Girard's holiday gatherings.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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It's hard as a rock, has a slight scent of spice and looks like Frankenstein, with knob-like mints protruding from its sides. But, hey, will any of us look any better than Pierre Girard's fruitcake when we're 97 years old?

"Most people won't touch it," said the Golden Valley resident with a chuckle. "Others say, 'I wouldn't have that in my house. I'm afraid of it.' I think I'm the only one that really loves it."

Ya think? Especially when even a young fruitcake, like many holiday traditions, evokes decidedly mixed feelings.

"My first reaction was 'Eww, I don't want to eat that one,'" said Sue Riley, a neighbor who first encountered the cake at Girard's Christmas party last year. "It's really ugly."

The cake's history, aside from its being baked a few months before the Titanic sank, is shrouded in mystery. Two of Girard's friends, Audrey Staber and Dick Scheimo, found it on a St. Louis Park closet shelf while doing an estate-sale assessment in 1992. The elderly resident had died with no heirs, and Girard never learned her name before Staber and Scheimo subsequently passed away.

But the cake came in a box with cryptic inscriptions: "Xmas cake Baked in dec. 1911" on top, "Xmas Cake baked by my mother's brother Alex died Dec. 27. Was operated on Xmas day" on the bottom.

Staber and Scheimo gave Girard the cake at a holiday gathering at T.K. Nick's in Golden Valley. Hilarity ensued. But when Girard decided to keep the cake, his friends "were amazed," he said. They shouldn't have been: Girard said he always has had a well-known weakness for "old things and castoffs ... and I've always had a reputation for keeping old food around."

Since he loves a good yarn as much as he does antiques, Girard baked up one for this cake. "I got to thinking, there's a story here. This is somebody's life, and she valued this."

He first learned that his new possession was part of a Victorian-era holiday tradition in which a family would make a spice cake, soak it in brandy and rum, eat part of it and put it away for the next year, adding a new layer when it got small. Girard took that bit of history and ran with it. His concoction:

"Alex was cooking a new top for the cake. So he was frosting the cake, and while doing that, the knife touched the bottom and got contaminated. And the last thing he did was lick the knife, and he got sick. Once he got sick, his family decided, 'We won't eat the cake til Alex comes home.' And when he never came home, they felt bad and put it away and never ate it again.

"So for that family in 1911, that old Victorian tradition stopped."

Not a pretty sight

With crumbling pecans and a motley, uneven frosting streaked with curvy pinkish lines -- "I don't think that's blood veins," Girard quipped -- the cake, like most things nearly a century old, looks every bit its age. It might be the oldest baked good in the state.

"Nobody around here has heard of any kind of food nearly that old," said Bill Belknap, spokesman for Hennepin County Public Health Protection. "It does beg the question: How long does a fruitcake last?"

Up to 25 years, according to "The Joy of Cooking," "when they are well-saturated with alcoholic liquors, which raise the spirits and keep down molds."

There's no question, then, that the cake was soaked in booze, which has served lo these many years as a preservative and kept it from disintegrating or being eaten by critters. Girard says dogs generally take a whiff and quickly turn away.

Humans, on the other hand, have taken much more interest in at least checking out the cake. Before he retired, Girard would take it to work at Qwest; his co-workers and fellow bus riders would marvel at this chunk of history.

His partner of the last six years, Dennis Borrel, was a bit more nonplussed. "I thought, 'Why in the world would anybody keep this?' But somebody kept it all those years before Pierre got it," he said. "It doesn't mean much to me one way or the other. But it's the only Christmas decoration that gets stored upstairs; all the rest go to the basement. So I do give it its place of honor."

Place of honor

But its real place of honor comes at this time of year. Last December, it was displayed at the neighborhood party alongside a barrel of Nouveau Beaujolais that Borrel had won, marking perhaps the first time anywhere that a wine was 96 years younger than the "food" accompanying it.

"I had one woman say, 'I think I'm getting sick from that, having an allergic reaction.' But knowing her, I think she was probably just trying to get a day off of work," Girard said. "We used to joke that it was the origin of the Ebola virus, or that there is a cure for every known disease in there.

"And of course, 'A fruitcake for the fruitcake,' I've had that comment several times."

The comments will continue, especially as Girard prepares for a gala 100th birthday party three years hence. But rather than a Nouveau Beaujolais, might we suggest a 1911 Port?

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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