You Learn Something New...

…every day!  That’s what they say.  And Saturday, it was definitely true.  I learned an obscure Christmas food fact.

The girls and I toured the Parson’s House at Old Sturbridge Village.  I always love to go there, because there is usually some cooking going on at the cooking hearth.  This particular night, it was bustling and smelled of spices and woodsmoke.  The women were making fruitcake.

Before them, on the table, were all the ingredients you might typically find in a fruitcake: eggs, butter, flour, spices, currants, raisins, etc.  But do you see anything that seems out of place in the ingredients arrayed before them?

If you answered “watermelon” you were right.  It sure caught my eye.  Why would a watermelon be an ingredient in fruitcake?  Why would it have been in the 1830′s, since watermelon would hardly be in season in December (and I don’t think they keep in a root cellar very well…but who knows?).  I was curious enough to ask, “Do you put watermelon in your fruitcake?”  The historical interpreter replied, “It’s a citron.”  Citron?  Ah…”citron” is one of those obscure ingredients in modern fruitcakes…one of those candied things in those 5-lb. wonders your Aunt Mildred foisted off on her dear relatives.  I looked at it again.  It certainly looked like a watermelon to me.  Amazed, I asked, “Then it’s NOT a watermelon?”  She said, “It IS a watermelon.  It’s a citron.”  Still confused, I asked, “So a citron is a variety of watermelon?”  She nodded.  It was a citron melon, which (according to Wikipedia) is “an ancestral variety of watermelon”.  I asked her if it could be eaten alone and fresh, like a watermelon.  But she told me that it really didn’t taste very good like that, because it was very pithy.  To demonstrate, she very sweetly held it close to the candle and held it very still, so I could get a picture of it in the dim light.

So, apparently, it was sitting there not because it would’ve been added to the fruitcake as is, but because it would’ve been preserved in season and added to the fruitcake in December in its preserved form.  The interpreter told me that it would’ve been chopped finely and mixed with sugar and cooked down; the sugar would act as a preservative.  You can see it preserved in the bowl on the right.

We were given delicious samples of the fruitcake they made, which is nothing at all like your Aunt Mildred’s.  And they gave us a copy of an old recipe for fruitcake and the modern interpretation.  Here are both recipes for your enjoyment:

from “The American Frugal Housewife” by Mrs. Child, 1833
Four pounds of flour, three pounds of butter, three pounds of sugar, four pounds of currants, two pounds of raisins, twenty-four eggs, half a pint of brandy, or lemon-brandy, one ounce of mace, and three nutmegs.  A little molasses makes it dark colored, which is desirable.  Half a pound of citron improves it; but it is not necessary.  To be baked two hours and a half, or three hours. 

the modern method
1/2 lb. raisins
1/4 c. brandy
3 c. flour
1 t. mace
2 t. nutmeg
1 lb. currants
3/4 lb. butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
6 eggs
2 T. molasses to 1/2 c.
2 oz. citron
Soak raisins in brandy overnight.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Sift flour before measuring.  Sift flour with spices.  Add currants and citron, if desired.  In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend after each addition.  Stir in molasses and any brandy that was not absorbed by the raisins.  Stir in sifted flour with spices and fruits.  Grease two 5″ x 9″ loaf pans, three 8-in. round pans, or one 10-in. tube pan.  Pour batter into greased pans and bake about 45 mins. – 1 hr.


  1. Hi There~What an interesting fact about the fruit cake and the watermelon! I learned something today!!!*grin*
    Loved the picture and your story. I checked your etsy and saved on my favorites. very lovely, smiles ~

  2. How fascinating! I love old recipes and traditions. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Patricia - Thanks for visiting...both blog and shop! Good to meet you!

    simplychele - I love to learn of old domestic doings too!


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