Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.” In Manitou Springs the local Chamber of Commerce encourages people to throw cake. Each January the community hosts its Great Fruitcake Toss, a strangely compelling spectacle in which participants fling fruitcakes through the air, competing in events that emphasize distance, accuracy, and showmanship. While the contest does nothing to improve the reputation of the much-maligned fruitcake, it has succeeded in attracting media attention to a town best known for its natural mineral springs and proximity to Pikes Peak.
The event is the brainchild of Michele Carvell, former director of the Chamber of Commerce, who conceived the Fruitcake Toss back in 1996 after she noticed that no one in her circle of friends wanted to eat the fruitcakes they received for Christmas. Carvell's attitude was, “Instead of throwing them out, why don't we take them down to the local park and throw them?” recalls Floyd O'Neil, coordinator for this year's Toss.
While the idea was offbeat it did have a certain appeal, as all one needed to compete was a fruitcake and a strong arm. “Imagine being on a baseball diamond and trying to throw a fruitcake from center field to home plate without a bounce,” relates O'Neil, highlighting the similarity between the inaugural Fruitcake Toss and an outfielder's throwing drill.
Over the years the Chamber has spiced things up by adding a variety of different events, and today just three of the eight categories involve throwing a fruitcake for distance. In the “Launch” competition, competitors are permitted to use a mechanical device—like a slingshot, golf club, or bow & fruitcake—to send the blocks of cake airborne. And in the “Targets” category, competitors earn points by hitting targets placed 75, 125 and 175 feet away. There's even an event in which fruitcakes are shagged like fly balls, and competitors run to and fro attempting to catch them using baseball gloves, buckets, fishing nets and the like.
Comparisons to baseball don't stop there as competitors are apparently tempted to doctor fruitcakes in much the same way batters cork their bats. The urge to cheat explains the need for a pair of “tech inspectors,” who, according to O'Neil, “probe the fruitcakes to make sure that no foreign objects—or at least nothing more foreign than what goes into a fruitcake—have been added. We haven't had a violation in years, but we still do the inspection to keep everybody honest,” he offers, noting that participants have been known to add marbles and pebbles to the fruit and nut filled cakes.
It's not like there's much to be gained from cheating. Competitors must donate at least one non-perishable food item to enter the contest, which has no entry fee and therefore no prize money. At best, a winner walks away with a personalized trophy, T-shirt, and the satisfaction of having made a donation to a local food bank, a significant detail considering that organizers are sometimes criticized for destroying perfectly good food.
“Every year we get a handful of emails or telephone calls from people who think it's disgraceful that we are wasting food or are being disrespectful to those in need. I always try to explain that the food we collect for charity is a big part of the event,” notes O'Neil.
The Chamber also takes care to point out that considerable effort is made to recycle the fruitcakes that are used in competition, an admission that perpetuates two unfortunate stereotypes: The first is that fruitcakes are indestructible, and the second is that they can be passed from person to person, year after year.
“When one of these things hits the ground it typically breaks into several dozen pieces,” explains O'Neil. “We pick up the pieces, patch them back together, wrap them in Saran Wrap, and try to preserve them for another year. We have some pretty scary looking fruitcakes that are 10 or 12 years old,” he says, chuckling at the thought.
Still, some complainants aren't placated by the recycling effort. “I had one lady last week who insisted that there are people in other countries who would love to eat fruitcake. Well, there are people in other countries who find cats to be delicacies, but we aren't tossing them,” quips O'Neil.
Meanwhile, the organizers have also heard griping about fruitcakes flying outside the staging area and raining down on unsuspecting town folk. While the distance record for a human toss is a mere 290 feet, a team from Boeing once entered a pneumatic canon that sent a fruitcake out of the park and into the nearby mountains. After using a global positioning system to locate what was left of the shattered cake, judges determined that it traveled 1,225.5 feet, a contest record that may stand for some time, as artillery-style shots like that one forced the Chamber to redefine the rules.
“When engineers started entering air powered devices it started to wreak havoc on the town,” laments O'Neil. “They were landing fruitcakes on the roof of our Moroccan restaurant and in the neighborhood behind it, and it became a very un-neighborly event from a Chamber of Commerce standpoint,” he says. That explains why the judges now disqualify anyone whose fruitcake lands outside the boundaries of the park.
For his part, O'Neil seems pleased that the Fruitcake Toss is beginning to de-emphasize the use of air-powered launchers, putting a premium on strength and accuracy. “The essence of this competition remains the same,” he begins. “It's to watch people wind up and throw fruitcakes just as far as they can.”