CORSICANA, Tex. — 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.