Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fruitcakes and Santa Claus

      My friend Sharon couldn’t restrain herself as we approached Claxton, Georgia on a road trip last December. “I bought some fruitcake once,” Sharon quipped. “I sent it overseas to guys in the army.”
      “How nice of you,” I said.
      “They dropped them instead of bombs,” she giggled. “They’re also good to use to balance a wobbly table leg, or as sand bags during hurricanes, or as speed bumps.” Fruitcakes are the most maligned of treats. But our preconceived notions of what some call “the worst gift ever” was dispelled when we got to the Claxton Bakery where employees were bustling to ship 90,000 pounds of cakes a day to places all over the world. Obviously, there are plenty of people who crave them. Claxton Bakery also the biggest industry in this central Georgia agricultural town.
      It began in 1910 when Savino Tos, an Italian immigrant and pastry chef, visited the town and was struck by the friendly people and lack of a bakery. He opened a small storefront where the aroma of fresh baked goods and his excellent ice cream earned him a loyal clientele. During the holidays he made his family’s fruitcake. One day an 11 year old boy wandered in looking for work and Savino gave him some chores to do. Albert Parker hustled to the bakery before school to light the ovens and prepare the dough and returned to work until dark. He did it for years. So when Savino wanted to retire in 1945, he sold the business to Albert who ran for 50 years. Today, his four children run the business which has prospered due to the company’s innovative strategies. Civic Clubs throughout North America use the cakes for fundraisers. They are featured in elaborate floats in televised parades.                                                                                                             

      “I feel obliged to buy some,” I whispered to Sharon. “At least for journalistic research.” So bought a few and we carried on to our next stop. Side trips are essential to long road trips, I believe. Our final destination was the outsider art sight Pasaquan near Columbus but I’d checked my favorite website and come up with a few ideas en route. The Vidalia Onion Museum was intriguing. “See a hand-painted 3-D mural of the onion in culinary action, marvel at the World’s Smallest Onion Field…Best of all, you’ll get to see the Vidalia “Yumion”, one of the more terrifying mascots ever created,” it touted. “A terrifying mascot?! I’m in!” I goaded. But somehow it didn’t make the cut. Neither did the “U.S. National Tick Collection” in Statesboro which hosts the world’s largest collection of ticks and a machine that freeze dries them and coats them with gold, a suggestion to which Sharon simply responded “EEW!”
    But up the road was a must-see destination for Christmastime: Santa Claus, Geora. I was surprised to learn that there are many towns in the U.S. named for Christmas. There are North Poles in New York, Colorado and Alaska; a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and another Santa Claus in Indiana. This one is tiny, only a fifth of a square mile. It looks more like the gussied-up entrance to a fancy subdivision then a town. The tinseled-bedecked visitor’s center was locked but Sue Grisham walked across the courtyard from Town Hall when she saw us and unlocked the door. She said that they call themselves “The Town that Loves Children”. Decorations are up all year and the 200 residents live on streets like Candy Cane Lane and Reindeer Way. When the town was incorporated from a pecan grove in 1941, State representative Tom Fuller declared it to have “Ten people, 40 dogs and no reindeer.” Back then tons of north-south traffic passed nearby and it seemed like a good way to lure tourists. That all changed when I-95 was built. Today, the town attracts thousands of postal customers instead who want their Christmas cards stamped in Santa Claus. As we chatted with Sue, she was busy stamping 200 envelopes she’d received from Austria.

      Back in the car I wondered what to do with the fruitcakes I’d bought. One appealing possibility was to take it to Manitou Springs’ Great Fruitcake Toss in Colorado Springs where we could join enthusiasts from around the world in contests that “launch the hapless dessert into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devises”. That sounded like the makings of another great road trip to us. But in the end, I slipped them under trees at holiday parties, put one in the mailbox for the postman and gave them as hostess presents. I’m worried though. I might receive the same cakes back in gifts to me this year. I guess I could just wrap them up again and wait for next Christmas.

If You Go

Claxton Fruit Cake:

Santa Claus, Georgia:

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