AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's the holiday season and for some of us that means fruitcake. Love it or hate it, at some point you've likely found yourself wondering who in the world makes fruitcakes. What exactly is in them and how long will they really last? Well, today we bring you answers. The small town of Claxton, Georgia is the self-proclaimed Fruit Cake capitol of the world. Two bakeries there make more than four million pounds a year of the holiday treat.
And NPR's Kathy Lohr visited both.
DALE PARKER: We actually begin with a blend of golden and natural raisins.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Dale Parker is vice president of Claxton Bakery, the larger of the town's two fruitcake companies.
PARKER: A lot of folks ask us what are the little green things in fruitcake and that's simply candied pineapple.
LOHR: There are also candied cherries, lemon and orange peel. And, of course, nuts - almonds, walnuts and Georgia pecans.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
LOHR: The family makes fruitcakes in relatively small batches, only 375 pounds at a time. The candied fruit, nuts, and batter tumble together in a huge stainless steel barrel, rotating kind of like the way a cement mixer works.
DAVE PARKER: You couldn't do that high speed, because if you did, then you'd pulverize the fruit.
LOHR: The batter is so thick that workers level it in the pans by hand before the sheets go into a revolving oven. The bakery goes back over a century, when an Italian immigrant, Savino Tos, moved from New York City to Georgia. Dale Parker's father, Albert, worked in the bakery as a young boy and eventually bought the business. Back then, fruitcakes were a delicacy at a time when many couldn't afford to buy fresh fruits and nuts.
Fruitcakes are often mocked. Most famously, former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson contended there is just one fruitcake and that it gets re-gifted as people send it house to house every year. As you might imagine, people in Claxton don't think it's funny.
MAYOR LUTHER ROYAL: Yeah, he said that, but he would not come locally and make that statement. He'd only say it on TV.
LOHR: That's Mayor Luther Royal. He says the town of about 2,000 revolves around fruitcakes. It brings in tourists to a place that otherwise might only be known for its rattlesnake festival. And Royal says the cakes have been a good negotiating tool for both him and the former mayor.
ROYAL: He would take a case of fruitcake to Atlanta and come back with a mile of asphalt. And we'd still do that. We'd take the Claxton fruitcake to Atlanta every year in December and give it to the elected officials.
LOHR: The second bakery is called the Georgia Fruit Cake Company. Its cakes are darker, and some are spiked with bourbon. Owner John Womble says the fruitcake market is older, but he says a new generation is interested.
JOHN WOMBLE: The younger people that we've picked up are generally hikers, bikers, people who are outdoors people who found out that you can take fruitcake with you, you don't have to worry about it going bad once you open it.
LOHR: Womble even got a letter from a fan who said they took one of his cakes to the top of Mount Everest. If it's done right, when you hold it up to the light, he says, it will look like a stained glass window. Womble offered some bourbon fruitcake for tasting.
WOMBLE: It's a very rich tasting cake. But it's not overpowering.
LOHR: This is much better than I thought it was going to be.
WOMBLE: We have volunteers who just want to stand around while we're pouring the bourbon on, actually.
LOHR: Both bakeries say Claxton is truly the fruitcake capital, despite claims by another company in Corsicana, Texas. Baking starts for the holiday season in August. The Claxton Bakery sells its cakes in large retail outlets, and they're now being marketed on QVC network.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dale, I have to tell you, honestly, until today, I was not a fan of fruitcake. I really wasn't 'cause it's always dry.
PARKER: So we've converted you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You converted me.
LOHR: And they've been coming up with new products. You can now buy individual slices called Clax Snacks or chocolate-covered fruitcake nuggets. Back at John Womble's Bakery, a family sits at the counter. Betty Selph is a typical customer. She lives about 50 miles away. Like many who stop by, she grew up eating homemade fruitcake, but loves this one.
BETTY SELPH: I taste my mother's fruitcake. How can you describe it any better?
LOHR: Both bakeries want to retain these traditional customers, but they know they need to reach out to a new, younger market. The Claxton Bakery has just joined Facebook and Twitter. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
CORNISH: As for how long that fruitcake on the table will really last, Claxton experts say it will stay fresh for up to six months at room temperature and for at least a year on the fridge.