In Georgia town, fruitcake isn't funny

November 26, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

CLAXTON, Ga. -- Welcome to Claxton: Fruit Cake Capital of the World.

"And proud of it," says a beaming W. Dale Parker, vice president of Claxton Bakery Inc., maker of Old Fashion Claxton Fruit Cake.

So fond of fruitcake is tiny Claxton, population 2,900, that the town's water tower touts this fruitcake factlet in big, bold letters. So do the road signs leading into this south Georgia town.

Claxton Bakery even has its signature song:

Cherries, raisins, nuts and more

What is Claxton Fruit Cake for?

It is the key, unlocks the door

To show the world we care.

From "Claxton Fruit Cake and Civitan"

(Sung to the tune of "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell)

Claxton has two fruitcake firms: Claxton Bakery and Georgia Fruitcake Co. The two family-run companies, situated just blocks apart, have operated since the early 1900s. It has probably been about that long since their respective owners have spoken to each other.

("My competitor will tell you he makes 86,000 pounds of cake a day," says Georgia Fruitcake owner Ira Womble Jr., who never refers to the competition by name. "I say he doesn't make that much.)

(I'm sure the other bakery makes a very good cake," says Mr. Parker, who noted that his firm produces about 86,000 pounds of cake a day. "But I wouldn't eat it. I've got enough right here.")

Mr. Parker has heard the jokes about fruitcake, which is said to have originated in England, and he even tells some from time to time. But he does take issue with Calvin Trillin's "One Fruitcake" theory. Mr. Trillin, the columnist and humorist, maintains that there is only one fruitcake in existence, which is passed from person to person.

(In an interview with the Seattle Times recently, Mr. Trillin said he frequently gets letters from people who say they like fruitcake. "I call them my fruitcake nuts," he said. "I want to get a rubber stamp that says 'Get a life,' and send postcards back to them.")

"It's a mystery to us," says Mr. Parker about the beating that fruitcake takes. "We let the comedians have their fun with us -- what else can you do? Some like it. Some don't like it. The ones that say they don't like it probably never tried ours."

Claxton Bakery began gearing up for holiday shipments in August. In recent weeks, both bakeries have shipped thousands of pounds to Saudi Arabia, where 18,000 pounds of fruitcake was on the Thanksgiving menu for U.S. troops of Operation Desert Shield.

At Claxton Bakery, workers blend the fruits, nuts and batter in 375-pound batches in a large vat that looks like a cement mixer. Then, the dough is baked in 11-pound loaves at 375 degrees for 1 hour and 40 minutes. The seven ovens can bake up to 6,000 pounds of cake at a time.

Afterward, the cakes are put into a cooling chamber, kept at 45 to 50 degrees, where they are left to "firm" for six hours. Finally, the cakes are rolled into a room where machines slice them into one-pound loaves .

(Sometimes, fruitcake stays in its package for a long time, and that's OK, according to Mr. Womble, who says cake can "maintain its integrity" for up to 16 years. "Now, we don't recommend you go that long, but it's still edible," he said.)

Claxton Bakery's red-and-white boxes list the ingredients in both English and French because so many of the cakes are shipped to French-speaking Canada.

"Epice," says Mr. Parker with a slight drawl as he points to the French text. "That's French for spice."

While the cakes are Georgia-made, the ingredients -- except for the pecans -- are not. The raisins, walnuts and almonds come from California; the cherries from the Pacific Northwest and, sometimes, France; the pineapples from Mexico; the processed lemon and orange peel from Florida.

The recipe for Claxton Bakery's fruitcake hasn't changed much since 1920, when Albert Parker, the patriarch of the family, began working at age 11 in a tiny Claxton bakery founded by Italian immigrant Savino Tos.

"If you had a piece of our cake then and had a piece today," says the elder Mr. Parker, "you'd have the same piece of cake."

What was that Mr. Trillin was saying?

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