ONEONTA, N.Y. — An estimated 3 billion packages will circulate through the postal service and delivery companies this holiday season. Somewhere among them is a 50-year-old fruitcake from Otsego County, New York.
In a 1985 monologue, “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson quipped: “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
True to Carson’s word, Phyllis Eggler and Jeanne Schuyler have been exchanging the same fruitcake since the late 1960s.
It all started in 1956 or 1957, sometime during the Eisenhower administration, as an earnest holiday gift from a landlord, according to Eggler.
The Egglers and the Schuylers were both newlywed couples living on different floors of the same home on Valleyview Street in Oneonta.
“He was very cheap,” Eggler said of their landlord.
“He was kind of a strange guy,” added Schuyler.
Eggler said the fruitcake gift inspired a prank.
“My husband and I rewrapped it as a joke,” she said. “That got it started.”
“The next year, we sent it back to them,” Schuyler said. “We’d just go along with it.”
Mail-order fruitcakes became a popular holiday tradition in the early 20th century due to their enduring shelf life. Traditional recipes call for soaking a loaf in liqueur or brandy, and coating it in powdered sugar, both of which are thought to inhibit mold.
In 2017, conservationists with the Antarctic Heritage Trust unearthed a still-wrapped fruitcake thought to be a relic of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, led by British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott in 1911.
The New York Times reported that a program manager said the cake was in “excellent condition” and the Trust said it smelled “almost” edible.
The Oneonta tradition continued through the years, even as the Egglers moved to a different part of the city.
Eggler said one year she paid $7 to ship it across town.
“I packed it in a big box so they wouldn’t know what it was at first,” she said.
Part of the fun is disguising the package to throw the recipients off the scent of a decades-old fruitcake, she said. One year, it was handed off to a friend to mail from Connecticut; another, from Long Island.
“It was always the same fruitcake,” she said – with one exception.
Sometime in the 1960s, Eggler bought a replacement for $1.98 from a five-and-dime in Cooperstown. That cake has since survived 10 U.S. presidencies, as well as Schuyler’s move to Florida almost two decades ago.
The cake is usually stored in the freezer of its current custody-holder until the following holiday season, when it’s mailed again. One year, Schuyler said she accidentally packed it away in the attic with her Christmas decorations.
“It spent the whole summer in the attic and never mildewed,” she said.
Eggler and Schuyler, now in their 80s and widowed, still talk on the phone regularly and have no plans to give up the tradition.
“It’s just a little fruitcake, but we’ve had lots of laughs over it,” Eggler said.