EVERY YEAR at this time millions of fruitcakes are given to people. We are reliably informed that many are eaten, but we have also seen quite a bit of evidence that many are not. That's why we think Sen. Sam Nunn should go a little easier on the Pentagon and its 18-page "recipe" for fruitcake.

The recipe is printed in the official military specifications for bakers who might want to produce the cakes for the troops overseas. It goes on and on about such things as flavoring ("shall be pure or artificial vanilla in such quantities that its presence shall be organoleptically detected"), candied pineapple (diced in quarter-inch chunks), and batter (to "consist of equal parts by weight of cake batter specified in Table I, and fruit and nut blend specifiedin Table II").

Sen. Nunn told the Senate about this recipe in order to make a point concerning overspecifying by the military and how it contributes to America's military procurement problems. But he failed to put it in the larger context of America's fruitcake problem. In some households, as we said, the fruitcake is eaten. But in others it's stored away in its unopened tin, or a few slices are brought out and partially eaten (crumbs and quarter-inch pineapple chunks scattered on the tablecloth) and the rest is stored. Sometimes it is passed on as a gift for someone else. Often, as it lies in some dark corner of the house, it is spoken of with feigned fondness when the person who has given it comes to visit. No one has the heart or the nerve to throw one away.

Consider, then, how many young people leave home for military service with the idea that a fruitcake is something on the order of a family heirloom. When they are issued their holiday slice by the mess sergeant, they are as likely as not to feel it's an item they'll be accountable for, and to do their best to keep it in good shape for the duration.

It becomes, then, a simple matter of morale for the Pentagon to insist on a fruitcake that is built to rigid tolerances, capable of being stored for long periods in a footlocker or duffle bag, of being carried in a field pack on maneuvers, of surviving a direct hit or a white-glove inspection, of enduring extreme climates from the tropics to the Arctic. Under the military's exacting specifications, 12 tons of fruitcake were produced for the troops this year at a cost of $1.51 a pound, which seems to us a bargain when you consider that, quite often, fruitcake is forever.