What comes to your mind when you think of fruitcake? Is it “soft, succulent cake filled with delicious fruit and nuts”? Or is fruitcake just another word for “doorstop.” While it’s true that the fruitcake has had an image problem for what seems like forever, its public approval rating reached an all-time low in the early ’90s when Johnny Carson mocked it on late night television. Still, despite public perception, the fruitcake industry is thriving, with millions of pounds sold commercially around the world each year. With the holidays and peak fruitcake-giving season upon us, Failure visited Claxton, Georgia—arguably the fruitcake capital of the United States—to get the inside story on the current state of this love it or hate it food.
Claxton, Georgia: Fruitcake Capital, U.S.A.
Claxton, a small town of four-thousand people 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, is best-known for its three primary industries—fruitcake, chickens and inmates. While the poultry factories and various correctional facilities provide most of the town’s jobs, it’s the fruitcake industry that brings in the tourists who come from far and wide to stock up on the creations of the Georgia Fruit Cake Co. (GFCC) and the Claxton Bakery. According to Elizabeth Hallman, administrator for the Claxton Chamber of Commerce, the fruitcake industry is vital to the community. “We would definitely see a decline in our economy if it were not for the fruitcakes,” she says.
Ira S. Womble Jr., 70, and his son John, 44, are the second- and third-generation owner/operators of the GFCC, and have been around long enough to have heard every fruitcake joke imaginable. “Everybody’s gotta have something to kick around,” notes John. “As long as they don’t call me by name it doesn’t really bother me, because I feel like we make a good product that is important to a lot of people.” While GFCC doesn’t reveal how many pounds it sells annually most of its customers buy in bulk. “Our core customer has always been the military,” says John, who reports that a government commissary once placed an order for 65,000 cakes.
Like most fruitcakes, the GFCC’s product includes a mixture of walnuts, pecans and almonds, plus cherries, apples, and orange & lemon candy peel. And like most producers in the industry, GFCC offers several varieties, including the “Womble’s Fruit Cake,” which is tinged with Old Taylor bourbon. In addition to its cross-town rival, GFCC competes with the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and other independent producers around the country, including several monasteries. Fruitcake sales are the sole source of income for Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, and the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky, are famous for their alcohol-laced cakes. “They make a ‘bourbon-blessed’ fruitcake,” says John. “It’s got a lot of bourbon on it. They just keep calling for more blessing,” he jokes.
Today, people tend to associate fruitcake with the holidays, but its origins date back to Roman times, which probably makes fruitcake the world’s first high-energy snack food. Beginning in the 1700s, Europeans began utilizing the dark cakes in religious ceremonies, harvest celebrations and weddings. Often, the top layer of a wedding cake (the “Bride’s cake”) was fruitcake, which the newlyweds would put in storage to savor on future anniversaries. Meanwhile, each guest would receive a small piece on their plate (the “Groom’s cake”), which single women would place under their pillow, ostensibly helping them dream about a groom of their own.
Fruitcake: Maligned And Misunderstood
According to John, the fruitcake began to get a bad name when people “started getting down on drinking and driving.” He claims that a wine company began taking shots at fruitcake in order to divert attention from the problem of holiday drunk driving. Virtually everyone in the industry believes that the low point occurred when Carson joked, “there’s only one fruitcake in the U.S., and it’s passed around year after year from family to family.”
Strangely, misconceptions about the life cycle of the fruitcake inspire many of the jokes. John, who has worked in the family bakery for almost 40 years, says, “I believe the reason a lot of people don’t like fruitcake is because they eat them when they’re fresh. They forget that fruitcake is supposed to be made, wrapped in an airtight container and then put away.” Giving the cake time to set allows the flavors to blend and achieve its optimal taste. “I would say anywhere from a month to three months is a good setting time,” continues John.
So how long will a fruitcake keep? “Till you eat it all,” says John, with a smile. "About the only thing that will go bad in a fruitcake is the nuts. The ones we make in a can, you can put it in a cabinet for three years and it will still be good cake,” he claims.
Fruitcake In The Spotlight
On occasion, someone takes a stab at improving the fruitcake’s public image. Last Christmas, [anonymous] Productions, a Pennsylvania-based ad agency, created the “Holiday Food Everyone Can Love” campaign. “It was no simple task,” said Alexander Krail, spokesman for the so-called ‘account.’ “We put together a multi-faceted media campaign promoting the fruitcake ‘brand.’ We believe the ads have helped reposition fruitcake as ‘the holiday food everyone can love.’ At the very least, we hope our efforts helped make the holidays brighter for anyone exposed to our message.”
Of course, many people see no redeeming value in any fruitcake, regardless of how old it is. Cinnabon, the cinnamon roll retailer, once invited consumers to trade in any unwanted fruitcake for a free cinnabon. And each year, the Great Fruitcake Toss is held at Manitou Springs Memorial Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Participants are invited to throw, use a golf club, or utilize a mechanical device to send fruitcakes flying through the air. “A waste of good food,” says John, sheepishly. “Actually, some of it is not a waste. There are some bad fruitcakes that deserve to be tossed,” he admits.
All jokes aside, the industry’s biggest problem seems to be an aging customer base. With all the preconceived notions, it’s simply hard to get young people to try fruitcake. “They’re missing out on something.” says John. “It’s not like they are missing out on a brownie. But it’s like broccoli. President Bush [Sr.] didn’t eat broccoli so I’m not going to eat any. People just take other people’s word that it’s no good.”