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So, About the Fruitcake: Can We Blame the Romans?

Lynne Ann Mitchell

It seems like we've been eating non-stop since early fall, doesn't it? Between Diwali, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas, feasting has been, er, on the table for a couple of months.

Wisconsin Foodie host and Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is all about the feast. So much so that he decided to focus this month's food conversation on the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia. It took place in mid-December and was a harvest celebration in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation, and time.

It turns out there were a number of rituals and practices observed during Saturnalia that closely resemble the current Christian Christmas celebrations:

"The charitable giving and the sense of feasting that went on for days and that this is when you pack on the holiday 5 or 10? The Romans had that in spades," says Cherek. "So we definitely owe a great debt to them, particularly around the food and the way we celebrate."

But do the two mid-winter celebrations share any food? Cherek says there are some things that we would recognize; such as roasted poultry, mulled wine, honey cakes, and cooked vegetables like squashes. The Romans also used cloves, cinnamon, and honey to spice their food.

And what about the fruitcake? "Well, the Romans gave each other gifts of dried fruits, berries, and nuts," Cherek laughs. "So it's almost a direct line."

Thanks, Romans.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.