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Tidings of Good Cake

Fruitcake is the most maligned food in America, the dessert world's equivalent of polka music. Especially this time of year. Come Christmas morning, shabbily made fruitcakes will be the coal in the bottom of the stocking, jokes to be passed from person to person. Seasonal Spams, they'll end up in the trash, at the back of the refrigerator, or as holiday doorstops. One recurring gag maintains that there's only one fruitcake in existence, passed around from person to person like a holiday hot potato.

But for Kurt Lincoln, there's nothing funny about fruitcake. Lincoln grew up on the stuff -- the good stuff -- baked in his family's Slice-O-Life Bakery in Palisades, on the Western Slope. While his peers skateboarded under the influence of Mountain Dew and other so-called hip products, he and his pals spanked the planks as "Team Fruitcake."

And today Lincoln, 23, heads up his family's two-decades-old fruitcake enterprise, which is busy shipping homemade cakes across the country to folks who can't celebrate Christmas without them. The job is a labor of love, but Lincoln knows that even hard work can't repair the reputation of his beloved treat. "That's kind of an impossibility," Lincoln says. "I hear all the jokes, but I just assume they're not talking about our cake. Ours is so different. It's gourmet food. It's, like, excellent."

One bite of a Slice-O-Life fruitcake -- meaty-textured, it slices like God's favorite fillet -- and you'll agree. Based on a recipe from Kurt's great-grandmother, the cakes are made almost entirely of Western Slope staples, from flour and honey to apples, peaches, cherries and other fruits. The fruits are all picked fresh, dried, then rehydrated in a blend of rum and apple juice before being mixed with pecans and other secret ingredients. The family bakes 300 cakes a day, douses each one with Coral Bay rum after it's cool, then ages the cakes for three weeks. The aging takes the edge off the rum, Lincoln says, and allows the Western Slope butter to meld the cake's flavors.

And what flavors they are. Each nibble, laced with nutmeg and cinnamon, delivers a gum-caressing array of sensations, from the crumbling of batter to the delicate softness of fruit nuggets to the bite-back of pecans to the delights of good bourbon, with the rum bleeding into the fabric of the cake and the essence of the fruit. (These cakes, and an equally thrilling peach version, can still be ordered for Christmas delivery by calling 1-970-464-1340 or visiting www.sliceoflifebakery.com.)

Slice-O-Life cakes are several cuts above the fruitcakes that gave the genre such a bad rap, confections studded with fruit dyed colors never found in nature. "I wouldn't even call that stuff fruit," Lincoln says of such holiday nightmares. In addition to poisonous-looking green cherries, cheap cakes suffer from a glut of citron, Lincoln says, a candied peel of a citrus fruit used as filler in the lowbrow versions. In contrast, a Slice-O-Life cake is pure mountain soul food, a baked-at-altitude treasure that lives up to the company's name and could slap the sneer off the most anti-fruitcake comedian.

Mary Beth Goodman, a New Hampshire fruitcake supporter, isn't sitting still for those jokes any longer. Two years ago she launched the Society for the Preservation and Protection of Fruitcake, a virtual group on the Web. "I got really tired of people making fun of fruitcake," she says. "I like fruitcake, and when I tell people I make it, they poke fun at me."

Her site, which draws over 200 hits a day during the holiday season, is a repository of fruitcake frippery including recipes, fruitcake-maker links and slices of fruitcake trivia. For example, fruitcake was a vital source of road food for everyone from extinct ancient peoples to Civil War soldiers, people who appreciated the preservative (and restorative) power of the confection. "It travels very well," Goodman notes.

But the main purpose of the site "is to let people know that there are others like us and that there's good fruitcake out there," Goodman says. "People can say, 'I'm not alone. There are others like me.' It validates them."

Still, there's a lot of rotten fruitcake lore to overcome. A link from Goodman's site to the Fruitcake Lovers of America page dead-ends, a sure sign of the stigma that comes with fruitcake appreciation. Next month, the town of Manitou Springs will host its annual Fruitcake Toss, a post-holiday tradition in which cakes are thrown in feats of half-baked athleticism.

And Collin Street Bakery, a Corsicana, Texas, company that ranks as the world's largest mail-order fruitcake outfit, just finished a national marketing campaign that pro-fruitcake folk could only view as a copout: The company's Sunday newspaper insert listed its Deluxe fruitcake as a "Christmas Cake," meticulously omitting the F-word entirely. Cowards.

Although a company executive denied that the ad was an attempt to carve around fruitcake's damaged reputation, Robert Means, a Collin Street marketing staffer, cheerfully admits that the ad was just that. "If we can get someone to taste our product, we have a customer for life," he says. "But if they've been socially conditioned that fruitcake is something bad, they'll never try it. It's a real challenge to overcome." Whatever they're called, 1.5 million Collins Street cakes will be shipped this holiday season.

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