To family, 141-year-old fruitcake represents love, legacy
TECUMSEH, Mich. — If fruitcakes improve with age, a Tecumseh, Michigan, family may have the finest in the land. It’s certainly one of the oldest — 141 years.
What would possess the seemingly normal Ford clan to hold on to a fossilized dessert for five generations?
In a word, love.
The cake was originally preserved to honor its maker, Fidelia Ford.
Now it’s being kept in tribute to Ford’s great-grandson, Morgan, who was its biggest champion until his passing in 2013.
“He took care of it to the day he left the earth,” said Morgan’s daughter Julie Ruttinger. “We knew it meant a lot to him.”
Despite the sweet sentiment, the years haven’t been kind to the confection.
Not picture-perfect: The round brown slab is hard as a rock with a blistered surface. A date and maybe a clove are visible.
It’s kept in an antique glass compote dish whose lid has long outlived its usefulness. The smell of rum and spices wafted away a long time ago.
“Smells like old people,” Morgan once chuckled.
Guinness World Records doesn’t keep track of the life spans of fruitcakes. As for cakes in general, the oldest is 4,176 years old, the Guinness organization said. Once tucked in an Egyptian tomb during the time of a pharaoh, the world’s oldest cake is now displayed in a food museum in Switzerland.
The story of the Ford fruitcake begins with Fidelia, a mother of seven who was born on the Fourth of July.
The star-spangled farmer’s wife was a wunderkind around a wood stove in her Berkey, Ohio, home, according to family lore. Every year she whipped up a fruitcake that would age for a year before being served the following holiday season.
After making a cake in 1878, the 65-year-old matriarch died before it could be eaten. When the holidays arrived, the family no longer regarded her handiwork as food. They saw it as a legacy.
Fidelia’s obituary, which is kept atop the cake, described her thusly:
“She lived, not for self, but for her family. No service was too great that was for the good of those around her.”
Despite its age, the fruitcake has had only two homes, the Berkey, Ohio, farmhouse and a Tecumseh bungalow.
The farmhouse was home to Fidelia, then her children, then her children’s children.
Fruitcake custodian: When her grandson Lyman had a stroke in 1952, he asked his son, Morgan, to become custodian of the candied-fruit concoction, relatives said.
It was a fitting choice because he was interested in genealogy, later compiling a family history.
Morgan stored it on the top shelf of a china cabinet in the dining room of his Tecumseh home, where it remains today. The reason for the lofty perch was to keep it from the prying hands of his five children.
But some of the kids and grandchildren wanted nothing to do with it. An 8-year-old grandkid once pronounced the crystallized lump as yucky. Then again, many people say the same thing about fresh fruitcake.
Another grandchild once sent Morgan a greeting card that teased him about his treasured keepsake.
“Oh, how nice, a fruitcake!” it read. “Nobody likes getting food that will outlive them.”
Morgan didn’t allow the tow-headed naysayers to spoil his fun. He learned early that, when prizing something as maligned as fruitcake, it paid to have a sense of humor.
The mechanical engineer not only had a well-developed funny bone but also the gift of gab, relatives said.
Show and tell: He loved to show off the once-edible artifact at church and family gatherings, regaling his grandchildren with stories about its history.
But he had to be careful at Ford reunions because the older relatives liked to take a poke at it, family members said.
Once, bringing the cake to show-and-tell at his grandchildren’s elementary school, several students took a deep breath and keeled over backwards, drawing a chuckle from the show-and-teller.
The heirloom even visited a funeral, family members said. When a Ford relative died, the man’s wife asked her kin to bring the petrified pastry to the viewing. It seemed her friends wanted to take a gander.
“He really enjoyed sharing the joy of the cake,” said Morgan’s daughter, Sue Durkee. “He took a lot of pride in it.”
Tasted twice: Let it be recorded that, in the annals of Ford family history, the infamous fruitcake has been eaten exactly twice — once by a wisecracker relative and once by a professional wisecracker, Jay Leno.
In 1964, Amos Ford told a family gathering it was a dirty shame his grandma’s creation had never been tasted, relatives said. He said he had a notion to right the wrong.
He was a jokester so no one took him seriously. The cake was 86 years old, two years older than Amos.
To his relatives’ surprise and delight and horror, he took out a jackknife, sliced off a sliver and popped it into his mouth.
He didn’t say how it tasted. Witnesses described it as crunchy.
Amos would later die but not for another two years, so the fruitcake is in the clear.
“We get a lot of enjoyment out of remembering, because it brings the memory of dad back, too,” Durkee said.
The other time the cake was sampled was when Morgan brought it on “The Tonight Show” in December 2003. He and host Leno took a chew.
Leno said it needed more aging. Morgan, a farmer’s progeny, said it tasted like thrashed wheat. That is “not good.”
A legacy: With the passing of Morgan, Ruttinger has become the latest bard of the family foodstuff. She keeps a copy of its history in her purse in case she’s questioned by relatives — or nosy reporters.
It’s important to her because it was important to her dad, she said.
After being a part of Morgan’s life for 93 years, the cake joined him in death. When he died, his family tucked a piece into his jacket pocket. An Egyptian pharaoh would have approved.
“It’s a great thing,” said Ruttinger, who, at 56, is the baby of the family. “It was tradition. It’s a legacy.”
The family has no doubt the cake, minus a few divots, will flourish several more generations.
There are eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, and several are interested in inheriting the relic.
During all the times Morgan talked to them about the cake and its value to the family, they were apparently listening.