Haul your Reeboks down to Goodwill, because it seems that 90s nostalgia is finally starting to wane in favor of another kind of mass sighing for bygone times. Rather than attempting to bring back the glory of the scrunchie or revive extinct overcaffeinated soda brands, the latest activity for nostalgists has been to exhume centuries-old food and beverage items and examine them for clues about the tastes of our ancestors.
Take, for example, the 200-year-old beer and Champagne that was recovered from a Baltic Sea shipwreck in 2011 and recently tasted by a panel of brave and curious experts of various kinds (the consensus: the beer was crappy, the bubbly was lovely). Or, like the butt of a well-executed holiday joke that your sweatered uncle would make, the still-intact 97-year-old fruitcake that has just been received by the Australian War Memorial.
This week, the granddaughter of an early-20th-century Australian laborer named Moss Valentine Brasington handed over the centenarian dessert to the AWM for safekeeping and study. It was baked in 1918 to celebrate Brasington's homecoming when he returned to Australia after serving in the Australian Imperial Force for three years, and apparently wasn't tasty enough to be consumed in full at the time. Henceforth, it has spent its life since Downton Abbey times self-fossilizing in a "tattered Starlight Soap box," presumably resting in a forgotten cabinet.
Although the cake has magically not been consumed by maggots or withered away into a fine dust, it does have enough alarming mildew on it to warrant the wearing of masks and gloves by AWM staff when they examined it, lest they accidentally inhale a toxic mold or, more likely, a ghost.
AWM curator Dianne Rutherford noted, "The cake is in a very interesting condition … You can see some evidence of the fruit that was in the cake."
There are three pieces of cake in the tin, though two remain "quite lovingly wrapped," in Rutherford's words, with the third being the fruit-laden specimen that has captivated the AWM staff. But oddly enough, the cake is kind of old hat to them—they were recently gifted some whiskey from the same time period, and there is another, even older slice at the memorial, which dates back to Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee. (The prized last McDonald's hamburger sold in Iceland, purchased in 2009 and currently on display and livestream at Rekyjavik's Bus Hostel, seemed positively infantile in comparison.)
But you won't be sneaking a bite, or even a first-hand peek, of the toxic but adorable old-ass cake anytime soon. The cake is too fragile to be displayed, and will instead be catalogued and photographed for online viewing only. (Sneak a peek of it in all of its decrepit charm here.)
Seems a bit wussy considering that far older cakes have been found—and eaten—in the past couple of years. In 2003, Jay Leno once took a bite of a then-125-year-old fruitcake in the spirit of adventure. (He declared that it "needed more time.") The cake remained in the spotlight until 2013, when 93-year-old owner Morgan Ford passed away while his 134-year-old dessert lived on.
So why does fruitcake seem to possess the secret to immortality? Well, there are a few factors at play. The flour's starch molecules crystallize, making it dry and hard to the touch so that mold doesn't thrive. Fruitcake also contains quite a bit of sugar, which renders it inhospitable to bacteria. Ditto with the brandy typically found in any classic fruitcake recipe—due to its alcohol content, it's essentially a preservative.
But either way, and most importantly, no one wants to eat the damn thing—then or now.