Johnny Carson said it, and I believed it. Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, he began the Christmas season by reminding us, “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.”
I knew his little joke wasn’t factual. Every year multitudes of fruitcakes marched like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs. How essentially good ingredients – fruit and cake – could be combined into a “treat” that was both gummy and dry was beyond me. But the fruitcake people had managed to do it. Even though I preferred not to waste my holiday calories on something that appeared to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, people kept pressing fruitcake on me. I wished there were only one. It would have been easier to escape the ghastly conconction.
Behind every fruitcake, of course, lurks a fruitcake-baker, and over the years first one friend and then another tried to convince me she’d finally discovered the secret to truly good fruitcake – soaking the raisins in bourbon, pouring brandy over the finished cake, substituting walnuts for pecans, eliminating the candied pineapple. No matter the adaptation, my opinion never wavered. Fruitcake was dense, dry and tasteless, except when it was gummy, sticky and tasteless. It was a grim excuse for a dessert and a terrible holiday tradition.
When it came to the matter of fruitcakes, I was my father’s daughter. When co-workers or business associates gave Dad a fruitcake, presenting it with a smile so big you’d think they’d just handed over the keys to a Mercedes, Dad would respond graciously and rationally. He’d thank the giver profusely, then rid himself of the cake as soon as their back was turned. Sometimes he sliced it up and left it in the coffee room at work. Sometimes he gave it to the postman. Now and then, he’d put one into a gag-gift exchange and count himself lucky that he’d traded the cake for a fishing lure or risqué necktie.
With multiple cakes to dispose of, he never failed to give at least one to my grandparents’ neighbor, Sadie. One memorable Christmas, Sadie turned around and gave the cake to my unknowing grandparents. Ever willing to share, Grandma got out her best plate, sliced up the cake and plopped it on the table in front of my dad, saying, “Sadie! Such a nice woman! See what she gave us! A fruitcake! Have a piece! Have two pieces!” And so he did, my poor father playing the role of the good son, eating the fruitcake that had come home to roost.
One year, he came home from the office lugging the biggest fruitcake I’d ever seen. After a little discussion, we decided we’d leave it in the pantry for a year and see what happened. In the end, nothing happened. We opened the fruitcake a year later, sliced it up and gave it a try. It didn’t taste one whit better or worse than a “fresh” fruitcake. As I recall, that was the year he stopped trying to be polite and began tossing out any fruitcake that came through the door. Under normal circumstances, tossing food wasn’t allowed in our house, but as my ever-reasonable father pointed out, fruitcake doesn’t meet any of the normal criteria for food.
As it turned out, we were on the cutting edge. More and more often, people “just said no” to fruitcake. When the good folk of Manitou Springs, Colorado caught on, they ritualized the tossing of the fruitcake. Today, The Great Fruitcake Toss has become a Chamber of Commerce event involving catapults, relay teams, high school science classes and spatula races. As a particularly nice touch, local motels provide guests with personalized, heavy-duty fruitcakes, making it possible for them to take part in the competitions.
Eventually, I moved away from home and began discovering little fruitcake-free zones scattered around the world. But once I moved to Texas, there was no avoiding fruitcake aficionados or that apotheosis of fruitcake production, the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana. As the Handbook of Texas notes, the place has quite a history.
In 1896 August Weidmann, a young German immigrant, opened a bakery on Collin Street in Corsicana, with financial backing from Tom McElwee, a local cotton buyer and opera-house proprietor. Weidmann’s specialty was fruitcake baked by a recipe he had brought with him from his native country. McElwee suggested the trade name DeLuxe Fruitcake for the product.
In 1906 the business was moved to a location on Sixth Avenue, and there McElwee opened an exclusive hotel on the second floor of the bakery. Enrico Caruso, John J. McGraw, and Will Rogers were among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel at various times. In 1914 a Ringling Brothers circus troupe, in Corsicana for a performance, bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes to give as Christmas gifts to friends and relatives all over the United States and in Europe. As a result, the bakery received an overwhelming number of orders from the recipients for more cakes, and the company’s mail-order business resulted.
When new friends discovered I’d never eaten a Collin Street cake, a fruitcake party was arranged. Everyone was to bring their own version of fruit-and-cake, with the famous Texas fruitcake rounding out the menu. There were some delicious offerings, to be sure – pear tortes and mincemeat tarts, apple-raisin-and-walnut cakes, povitica and panettone. I brought along my California fruitcake, a lovely concoction of apricots, dates and pecans that fit in nicely.
After a couple of hours of coffee, desserts and chit-chat, the Collin Street cake was sliced and passed around. I ate my portion, graciously agreed that it was very nice, and thought to myself, I’ll not be buying one of these things. When the hostess asked if anyone would like to add a cake or two – or six – to the order she was placing, I resisted the group’s urging and declined. And that was that.
Or so I thought, until the afternoon I stopped to pick up my mail and discovered a form tucked in among the bills and grocery ads, telling me I had a parcel waiting in the apartment office. When I walked in, the manager already had seen the package and waved me into the mail room. Digging through the mass of boxes, I couldn’t find it. Peeking around the corner, I asked if she was sure it was there and she started to laugh. “What?” she said. “How could you miss it? It’s right there in front of you.”
And so it was. On a lovely box imprinted with a scene that appeared to be a cross between frontier Texas and Victorian England, I saw my address and the words “Collin Street Bakery”. Laughing, I balanced the box on one hand. Judging from its heft, it was, indeed, one of Corsicana’s finest – a fruitcake in that famous red tin, studded with pecans and weighing about six pounds.
Convinced one of the fruitcake nuts had decided to play a joke, I opened the box and discovered an even more amusing truth. The enclosed gift card bore the name of a friend in England. The cake wasn’t a joke occasioned by my fruitcake-criticism, but a lovely, seasonal gift – sent from the Fruitcake Gods by way of my friend to remind me of that basic truth of life: You cannot escape The Fruitcake.
After calling my friend to thank her, I carried the cake down to my mother’s apartment and brought it out after dinner. “Oh!” she said. “Fruitcake! From the Collin Street Bakery! Wherever did you find this?” While I made coffee and cut a couple of slices, I explained it had been sent as a gift and laughed again as my mother channeled her mother-in-law. “Oh!” she said. “Jean! Such a nice woman! So nice of her to send you a cake!”
As we tucked into it, I picked my way around the candied cherries and citron while Mom made her way through three slices. “My,” she said. “I wish your dad was here. He always did love a good fruitcake.” “Umhmmm…” I said, as I gathered the plates. I thought of the multitude of fruitcakes my dad had disposed of, and how proud he would be to see me nestling the rest of this one next to Mom’s coffee pot.
“You’d better take your fruitcake with you,” she said, as I headed for the door. “Oh, that’s ok,” I said. “Jean will be delighted to know I shared it with you. Whenever I get an urge for fruitcake, I’ll just stop by and cut myself a slice.”