The ‘Fruitcake Man’ mixes love, dedication and faith into baking
Published 10:29 am Monday, November 10, 2014
To some, Nathaniel “Tom” McCloud is a hero because he was a soldier who served his country in the Korean war, enduring the hardships of being a Prisoner of War.
But these days, some 60 years later, he is a different kind of a hero. Affectionately known to many in Carter County as “The Fruitcake Man” — McCloud is now “famous” for the tasty fruitcakes he bakes and for generously selling as a benefit to his church.
McCloud, who attends Unaka Baptist Church, has been baking for 59 years. He started baking with his wife, Billie Jean, for their family members and friends.
“It was just something me and the wife got into,” he said. The couple used to bake a variety of desserts and other treats — pies, cakes, puddings and other items, depending on what their family and friends wanted.
When his wife became sick and later passed away, McCloud had to scale back. Now battling his own health problems, doctors have limited the amount of physical activity McCloud can do each day. Even with restricted orders, McCloud still gets up early each day to make his fruitcakes and cookies as needed.
Last year, he made a whopping 4,256 cakes; this year he has already topped the 3,000 mark.
Although McCloud varies the time of the morning he starts baking depending on how many batches he wants to finish, he likes to get an early start; on Wednesday morning when the Star visited, he had been baking since 1 a.m.
Each batch of cakes takes approximately four and a half hours to do — two hours to mix the ingredients and two and a half hours to bake each batch. He cooks the batches in sets of seven cakes and usually bakes three batches a day, but sometimes, he will do as many as five a day to meet the demand.
McCloud puts a lot of pride and attention to detail into his fruitcakes, and he meticulously adds each new ingredient to the mixing bowl making sure “each one covers the other.”
It’s hard to find people to help him bake the fruitcakes, he says, because everyone tells him he is too particular about how the cake’s ingredients are put together.
One example of his exacting methods is the preparation of the cherries used in the cakes; McCloud hand slices more than one pound of cherries that goes into each batch — something that takes about 20 minutes.
He said this is the most tedious part of the baking, but there is a purpose behind him doing it the way he does.
“If you put in the whole cherries instead of slicing them, there may be some cakes with more cherries than the others,” McCloud said. “It they are sliced up small, then there will be cherries in every bite and they will all be the same.”
McCloud’s fruitcakes come from a family recipe that is at least 150 years old. He also recently wore out the old metal mixing pan he had used for all the years he has been baking cakes. “It was my grandmother’s pan,” he said, “and it was her mother’s before that. It had to be 150-200 years old. I finally wore a hole in it, so it was time to get a new pan.”
McCloud has been baking his fruitcakes so long that he doesn’t event bother with a measuring cup to pour the batter into the pans. Instead, he scoops just the right amount into his hands and places it in the pans. Then, before putting the filled pans into the oven, he tops each cake with a line of three whole cherries down the middle and puts pecans along the edges, making sure that each one is the way he wants it to be.
In addition to his fruitcakes, he also bakes peanut butter cookies to raise funds for his church. All of the proceeds go to Unaka Baptist Church, where he has served as a deacon since the church was formed. He also sells pecans and donates that money to the church as well.
He gets a lot of support from his pastor, he says, who has recruited all of the church members to promote the fruitcakes and help sell them.
It’s a year-round labor of love for McCloud.
“The cakes are just as good on the Fourth of July as they are at Christmas,” he said. “They are not just for the holidays. People just have it in their minds that is when they eat them. If I don’t have them when people call, I can have them by the next day.”
McCloud’s cakes have developed quite the following. He has numerous local customers as well as many customers from all around East Tennessee and North Carolina. He has shipped his fruitcakes as far away as Canada, Washington and New York, and has sent them to customers in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. He said one out-of-state customer purchased extra cakes to send to their family members in France.
Although McCloud’s health isn’t good — he has to use oxygen treatments and has suffered numerous heart attacks — he is determined to keep baking.
Exposed to chemicals while being held as a prisoner of war during the Korean war, he says his doctors have advised him to slow down and not continue the strenuous pace he sets for himself.
But McCloud just won’t hear of giving up on his baking.
“I never want to quit, and I will not,” he said. “The doctors are begging me to quit, but I am going to do it as long as the Lord lets me.
“I will do it until He takes me home,” McCloud added. “I told the doctors I will listen to them on everything except for this.”
So after he is finished baking, McCloud sits down and reads 12-20 chapters of the Bible, going over his prayer list that has over 600 names on it.
“I keep doing it because it is my way of thanking the good Lord for all He has done for me,” McCloud said. “He has given me my strength and health. He brought me through the prisoner of war camps. I cannot repay Him, but I can thank Him.”
McCloud’s cakes are now available and are $12 and the peanut butter cookies are $3. He has them in regular and sugar free versions. To place an order, contact McCloud at 423-474-2112.