Fruitcakes. Most people say they don’t like them. Too hard. Too sweet. Too icky. Anyway, that’s what they say.
Enrico Caruso, though, wolfed them down con brio , or at least one particular brand. So did Gentleman Jim Corbett. Will Rogers never et a cake he didn’t like. Neither did Muggsy McGraw, nor Una Merkel, nor the late Leopold, King of the Belgians.
The Ringling Brothers liked the things so much they posted them to friends and clients by the tentful.
And therein lies a tale.
Ninety years later, William McNutt Jr. still eats them (though he reluctantly confesses a preference for chocolate). Like well over a million crazed partisans from Norway to Nicaragua, “I keep one in the refrigerator year-round, and I just sort of nip off of it,” McNutt twangs.
McNutt gets to twang, and to brag, too, if he is so inclined. For one thing, he is a Texan, where such behavior is pretty much a prerequisite. For another, he is the latest of the felicitously named McNutt clan to produce “the best fruitcake we know how” at the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana.
McNutt’s is not an idle boast. A glance at his mailing list sustains the claim: a widespread clientele ranging from royalty to rogues.
Or at his shipping manifest; four million pounds of the redolent comestible dispatched this year, all mail-order (“our sole sales tool”) generated by word-of-mouth.
Or at the address labels: “Every nation on the face of the earth except Cuba and Albania, because there’s no mail service between here and there.”
Or even at a recent article in People magazine: “What Dom Perignon is to Champagne and Romanoff is to caviar, the Collin Street Bakery is to fruitcake.”
McNutt, a robust 61, has a modest side, too. “I’m just sort of the cheerleader around here,” he says. “I really am.”
In the wings are sons Bill III, 31, and Bob, 29. Are Bill and Bob fruitcake freaks too?
“I’m sitting in my office one day,” Bob says by way of response. “Bill comes in with a slice of fruitcake.
“ ‘Take a taste,’ he says. I take a taste. ‘Did you notice anything?’ ‘No, tastes just fine.’
“ ‘Bill tells me, ‘I got this from a lady whose cousin just passed away. She was clearing out his deep freeze and found the fruitcake at the bottom.’
“Let me tell you, that fruitcake was as good as when we baked it--in 1952!”
The story effectively refutes the contention that fruitcakes are better used as bookends, door stops or, in a pinch, third base.
Then there’s the one circulated by food maven Calvin Trillin, who theorizes that there’s really only one fruitcake in the world, shipped from person to person each Christmas so no one has to eat it. . . .
Bill Cullen, a longtime Corsicana customer, obviously would disagree. So would Zubin Mehta, another customer. And Dom DeLuise, and Julius (Dr. J) Erving, and Estee Lauder, and Art Buchwald. . . .
Buchwald doesn’t actually buy the cakes, mind, but he gets one every year, and he consumes it, after his own fashion.
“An old USC friend, Jerry Altshuler, sends me a Corsicana cake every year from Oklahoma,” Buchwald said by phone from Washington. “He must have done something to me at one time and still feels guilty.
“Do I eat it? I think I do. Well, no, not really. I have no respect for people who eat fruitcakes.
“What you do with a fruitcake is pick at it. . . .”
In the huge Corsicana bakery-cum-factory, half the employees seem to be picking at fruitcake--a cherry here, a nut there.
The smell is pixilating, the noise plangent, the whole place a bodacious bedlam of batter and chatter.
The first thing you notice is a conveyor belt flanked by no fewer than 66 women whose sole purpose is to hand-decorate the tops of the cakes with pecans, citron, cherries. Like snowflakes, no two Corsicana cakes are alike.
The work is hard, monotonous, but not without its moments. “Don’t stand in one spot too long, love,” grins a thin, energetic woman (making the word long into an improbable diphthong, or even triphthong). “Yew take root, we gone make a fruitcake outa yew.”
Incredibly, what with about 30,000 cakes baked a day, a major part of the operation is done by hand. The process starts when half a dozen hefty men empty pre-weighed boxes of ingredients into voluminous vats, called “bowls,” each holding a “batch” of 345 pounds.
(The McNutts scour the world for what they presume are the finest components available. Costly pecans--28% of the cake by weight--are virtually the only native product. Citron, a fruit resembling a lemon or lime, can come from Sicily; pineapples from Hawaii or Malaysia; raisins from California, Spain or Turkey; cherries from Washington State or the Midwest. No additives. No artificial flavoring.)
The “bowls” are hefted toward a monster mechanical mixing machine--two Brobdingnagian steel arms that scrunch and mush and turn the glop into what looks like psychedelic oatmeal. Just enough flour and batter (the bakery’s only “secret” ingredient) are added to bind the mixture into bakeability.
Next to the mixers is a redundantly strapping Texan with arms like the pistons of Engine No. 49. Jim Scales, he calls himself, and his job is to bull the vat into a mechanism that lifts it, dumps it and scrooshes the mixture into baking tins below. Scales gets a flying start on the slippery floor, but not always successfully. “Fall like as not,” he confided. “Part of the job.”
So is the weighing and the baking and the stacking and the packing into distinctive, colorful tins, and the shipping--a huge load for Japan, another for Australia, a smaller load for Singapore. . . .
A tiny packet for Princess Marguerite de Bourbon d’Orleans, whose Christmas list always includes her nephew, Belgium’s King Baudoin. Another to the Grand Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg, who send a Corsicana cake to Count C. J. Henschel d’Donnersmarck and sign it “From Jo and Johnny.” Another to the king of Saudi Arabia, a bigger order to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
A Collin Street fruitcake is delivered by runner to a woman about to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Another finds its way, precisely on Christmas Day, to a British trooper in the Falklands.
Not too many, though, go to France, where the idea of the fruitcake is said to have originated, in the form of a kind of soup.
“We have a very, um, pleasant clientele in France,” McNutt says diplomatically, “but you know the French: Nothing made outside France is equal to anything they have there. . . .”
“I don’t know,” says prominent L.A. restaurateur Patrick Terrail, a card-carrying Gaul. “I love fruitcake around the holidays, with ice cream, maybe a little Grand Marnier.
“I’ll never forget a wonderful dinner I had at Julia Child’s house. She’d made a fruitcake in advance.
“She turns to her husband and asks, ‘Don’t you think this is a little dry?’ He does. So she brings out this bottle of rum and pours it over the cake.
“Now that was a dessert to remember. . . .”
“The alcoholic version . . . " McNutt sighs. “Well, we never, never try to compete with anybody’s grandma. Remember, grandma baked the fruitcake in the summer and kept it in a whisky-soaked rag until it was practically pickled. I tell you, a fruitcake like that would keep for two summers in the middle of the Sahara.
“Some of our competitors too--the ones who give fruitcakes a bad name--cover up inferior ingredients by adding spirits, which is what you taste, not the ingredients.
“We don’t use spirits because, one, I read that fully a third of the American population are teetotalers, and we’re not going to ignore that market. Secondly, the minute you put bourbon in the cake, somebody is going to want brandy, somebody else rum. . . .”
So much for booze. What about badinage? Why is the very word fruitcake-- like Cucamonga or snood-- a trigger for instant mirth?
“How’s that?” asks McNutt, eliciting a typical example from a visitor: the succulent syntax of the society editor of a major daily who was reporting on an international wedding.
“The dessert,” the editor wrote, “was provided by the bride’s mother, a three-tiered English fruitcake.”
McNutt gulps down a grin, concedes that “lemon pie” wouldn’t be nearly as risible. “We’re aware of the reputation of fruitcakes,” he says, “and the fact that so many people don’t like them, but honestly, that’s because they never really had a good one.”
The average repeat business in the Christmas mail-order-food business, he says, is 32% to 35%. “That’s including the biggies, and they’ve got huge ads and 24-page catalogues. We’ve got one product and a simple little mail-out folder--and our loyalty rate is 71%"
Among the 71% are Patrick Duffy, Kay Starr, Stefanie Powers, Arnold Palmer, Dave Brubeck, Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Allen. . .
“I love ‘em,” says Allen, on the phone from St. Paul, Minn. “It’s one of the great institutions, like spaghetti and chop suey.
“We’ve been sending the Corsicana cakes as gifts for years. I identify certain people as nutty and my wife Jayne (Meadows) supervises the list.
“I didn’t grow up with fruitcakes--I come from a lower-middle-class Irish family, Studs Lonigan country, and it wasn’t on our list, but it is now.
“A fruitcake is one of those rare gifts that ritualize an occasion. . . .”
“Dating back to antiquity,” McNutt says, “high events have always been celebrated by a cake--birthdays, weddings, Christmas. Don’t ask me why it’s a cake. It could have been turtle soup, anything. It’s hard to imagine, though, a song that would go ‘If I knew you were comin’ I’d have baked an anchovy pizza.’
“So cakes go way back, and as a matter of fact, so does this one.”
Corsicana is a funky little city now, blowing in the bypassed air of “The Last Picture Show.” A honky-tonk bar or two still provides a facsimile of the red meat of yesteryear, but the general diet has languished to the level of fast-food.
Ninety years ago, though, when Gus Weidmann was boosted off the train, Corsicana was a rip-roaring, pistol-packing boom town three times its present size--the first American community outside Pennsylvania to strike oil.
August Weidmann, an itinerant baker from Wiesbaden, Germany, had emigrated to America in search of dough, found his way to Chicago, hopped a freight south, got caught by the railroad bulls and unceremoniously dumped off the train outside of Corsicana.
Gus landed a job baking cakes and pies for a ragtag cafe. The cafe was frequented by Tom McIlwee, cotton broker, bon vivant and owner of the local opera house. Tom set up Gus in his own bakery in 1896, on the ground floor of a building whose second story was used by McIlwee as a small, private hotel.
Caruso stayed there, Will Rogers, whoever played the town. Everybody who was anybody--and a lot who weren’t--ate Gus’ fruitcakes which, aside from a few more exotic ingredients, was basically the same cake it is today.
The Ringling Brothers, whose big top regularly played Corsicana, are generally credited with spreading the skinny, when they began mailing the cakes to favored friends and associates.
In 1946, McNutt’s father and uncle bought the bakery from McIlwee (Old Gus was still cooking) and decided to shuck everything but the mail-order fruitcake biz. Hooked on the sheer opulence of the sweetmeat, a farmer in the Dakotas, say, would ship a fruitcake to a cousin in Denmark. Hooked in turn, the Dane would order one the next year for his cousin, in Switzerland. . . .
It’s an institution now, almost a sacred trust, at least to Texas mailmen.
From Guam, Michael West’s order is addressed only to “The Best Fruitcake in the World/ Texas.” Another order, from Oakland, finds its way home, addressed to “Fruit Cakes for Xmas c/o A Small Town, State of Texas.” Another letter is dispatched, earnestly if erratically, to “Fruitcake Capital/ Corsica.”
Posted in the bakery lobby is a sampling of recent letters:
From Adriano Costa: “Please send a small cake to Edward Van Buhren . . . After I tasted it, I ate the whole cake, which belonged to the aforementioned.”
From Antonio Fracchio, Asuncion, Paraguay: “Sorry for my englis, is not good, but this letter is for congratulation. . . .”
From C. I. Barker of Oldham, England: “I am a Manchester postman who has handled your parcel for quite a long time. Last week, a parcel had ‘broken open’ . . . Can we order one? It would go down well with the wine at Christmas.”
“It’s a simple operation, really,” McNutt says. “We don’t have to hype our per-share earning. I have a stockholders’ meeting every morning when I shave.
“It’s a backward approach, in a way. Others in the business--and there are a jillion of ‘em--will say, ‘We gotta have a fruitcake that’ll sell for $8.95,’ and they’ll cut the cloth to fit. If pecans are too dear, they’ll go to almonds, or walnuts, or peanuts.
“We sit down at the beginning of the year and survey the market for the best pineapples, the best citron, the best pecans. If there’s a crop failure in one place, we shift to another.
“We’ll construct the finest fruitcake we know how, and then we’ll price it. That’s the last consideration. (This year, $10.15 for a two-pounder; $14.65 for three, $23.95 for five; postage extra if mailed overseas.)
Oddly--refreshingly, somehow--it’s a formula that works, and works and works.
Princess Grace would send 12 or 15 cakes annually, and air-freight a couple of hundred for Monte Carlo galas. “We mourned her loss,” McNutt says, “but lo and behold, the same year she died we had an order from Princess Caroline.”
Coming full circle, the Ringling Brothers remained faithful until 1984, when John Ringling North Jr. died. . . . “Last year, in comes an order from John Ringling North III, Galway Cattle Co., Ireland.”
Nor are the rich and famous Collin Street’s only, or even major, customers. Equal courtesy is accorded the poor but proud. A deal is under way to swap cakes for hand-carved curios made by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island, where money is only a rumor. A woman in Sri Lanka, forbidden to export cash, trades tea for her fruitcake.
“And then there was a guy in Magnolia, Ark., who needed his fruitcake fix but was a little short of cash. Offered to send us a Shetland pony. . . .”
Below, the factory is in full hum, the temporary holiday workers belting out a saucy version of “I’ve been working on the fruitcake.” Abovestairs, Bill McNutt Jr. thumbs a cookbook, Dorothy Butcher’s “Here’s Cooking at You"--300 dishes, 100 full meals. The last entry is under “Fruitcake.”
“You don’t ever need to make fruitcake,” Butcher writes. “You can order the best fruitcake in the world from Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Tex. 75110.
“That is all the address you’ll ever need.”