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World's Best Selling Fruitcake A Holiday Tradition

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By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-808337.mp3

Corsicana, TX – You may not want to admit it, but a lot of you are eating fruitcakes this Christmas. And loving them. As part of our Holiday Traditions project, KERA's Shelley Kofler takes us to the Texas bakery that sells more fruitcakes than any other in the world. With no apologies needed.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Fruitcakes are the butt of a lot of jokes. And the jokes are all over the Internet.

A Web site for the Fruitcake Institute claims the fruitcake has been linked to global warming, monkey pox and the hanta virus.

In a video posted on the site, two guys in white coats claim they are looking for the best way to destroy fruitcakes. So they fire one from a homemade rocket launcher into the side of their test van. The fruitcake survives.

Then there are the hundreds of songs that poke fun. Pat Boone's "Fruitcake Song" builds on the old joke that there's really only one fruitcake in the world and we just pass it around.

But at the Collins Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, fruitcakes are no laughing matter. They are big business for this small town company that has been selling the same fruitcake since 1896. That's when a German baker with a family recipe teamed up with an entrepreneur and opened Collins Street.

It is the week before Christmas and at least 100 employees are on phones nonstop, taking orders.

Bakery Employee: Are you still at the same address, Los Angeles, California?

Reporter/Bakery Employee: Where are you getting calls from today? All over the country -Florida, California. Pretty much any state you can name.

Collins says it ships fruitcakes to 200 countries. Hayden Crawford is the marketing manager.

Crawford: On our busiest days we can produce 30,000 hand-decorated cakes. That's a million cakes over the course of a year and the majority of those are done in the 40 days around Christmas.

Crawford and co-workers believe there are so many jokes about fruitcakes because there are so many bad ones. Mass produced cakes that have all kinds of junk in them. So what's in the world's best selling fruitcake?

Crawford: Ours is a light batter fruitcake. Ours has pineapple and pecans as the two major ingredients. It has cherries from the Pacific North West. Raisins from California. The pineapple comes from our Costa Rican farms, where we have the largest organic pineapple farm in the world.

To see how they are made, Crawford takes us to a cavernous warehouse that smells like Christmas. A sweet, nutty aroma wafts through the warm, thick air. Hundreds of employees in aprons and hairnets line a 1940s era conveyor belt.

Crawford: We are looking at our decorating lines. Our deluxe fruitcake is hand-decorated.

It's a colorful process. Once the gooey cake batter is plopped into a mold, the metal pan clatters along the assembly line. At one station, bakers add red cherries. At another, green-colored pineapple. At a third, they carefully place pecans in a concentric design. The decoration is pressed into the batter, and the cake is sent to the oven.

A standard sized cake, eight inches across, weighs a hefty two pounds. Probably where some of those jokes about using fruitcakes as door stops or anchors come from.

Reporter/Crawford: What makes this so heavy? One would not call this a light desert. The cake is intentionally made dense. In fact it's 80 percent fruit and nuts and it was made that way so it could last a long time. Homemakers used to make these cakes before refrigeration.

Now we're getting to something I've never understood. Why do fruitcakes seem to last so long? I swear, my mother had a fruitcake in her refrigerator for over a year and still nibbled on it.

Reporter/Crawford: Is that possible that it would last that long and still be edible? Yes. We got a letter from a lady who had gone into her great aunt's freezer in the outback in Australia and found one of our fruitcakes she thought had been there for a minimum of 40 years. Was it any good? She said it was still good. No joke. No joke. It made it into the papers. I'd say it would make it into Ripleys.

Crawford says fruitcakes have a long shelf life because the fruit is supersaturated in sugary syrup, a glaze. The sugar acts like a preservative.

Needless to say, a small piece of this sweet dense cake goes a long way. The third-generation president of the bakery, Bob McNutt, has been eating it all his life.

McNutt: My preference is for a thin slice of fruitcake.
Some people will take it and put a little butter on top and toast it first thing in the morning. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we'll put a little dollop of whipped cream on top. People like to serve it with ice cream, as well.

In the bakery's sales shop, Peggy Zalkovsky plans to serve the fruitcake she's buying the same way her grandmother did.

Zalkovsky: If I can soak it with wine its even better.

She buys one every year.

So does Irene McPhail.

McPhail: I grew up in the north and my mom just loved fruitcakes. That was just the thing to do during Christmas. We always had it at midnight. It was special with chocolate or tea. And we'd sit around the tree and eat it.

In fact, most of the fruitcake lovers in the sales shop come back year after year because the cake has been part of their family's holiday for generations.

Many like Carl Coleman still tell a few fruitcake jokes.

Reporter/ Coleman: It makes a good boomerang if you cut it in half and throw it. You can't get rid of it. It comes back. But you keep buying it. I know it's delicious.

But they don't let the jokes come between them and this holiday tradition.

Coleman: It's a classic. It's something we always do.

You can share your own traditions by going to our Holiday Traditions Web site.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, in the spirit of Giving Tuesday, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.