Nathaniel “Tom” McCloud, known to some as “The Fruitcake Man,” is well known in Carter County for the tasty fruitcakes he bakes and sells as a benefit for his church. In addition to his fruitcakes, he also bakes and sells peanut butter cookies.
McCloud, who attends Unaka Baptist Church, has been baking for 56 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 would bake a variety of desserts and other treats. He said they would make pies, cakes, puddings and other items, depending on what their family and friends wanted.
McCloud had to scale back when his wife became sick and died. He is now battling his own health problems, and doctors have limited the amount of physical activity he can do in a day. Even with restricted orders, McCloud still gets up early each day to make his fruitcakes. He bakes the cookies as needed.
McCloud starts his day around 5 a.m., but he noted he does sometimes get up earlier if he has a bigger batch of cakes to bake. Each batch of cakes takes approximately four and a half hours to do, starting with 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 will sometimes do as many as five a day to meet the demand for the cakes.
McCloud puts a lot of pride and attention to detail into his fruitcakes. He meticulously adds each new ingredient to the mixing bowl to make sure “each one covers the other.”
He also hand-slices more than one pound of cherries that goes into each batch of cakes.
He is so familiar with the process that he does not require a measuring cup to place the batter into the pans to bake. Instead, he scoops just the right amount into his hands before placing it in the pans. Before putting the fruitcakes into the oven he lines three whole cherries down the middle and puts pecans along the edges, making sure that each topping is the way he wants it to be.
He said it is hard to find people to help him bake the fruitcakes because they all tell him he is too particular in how the cake’s ingredients are put together. He makes sure each layer of ingredients completely covers the layer below it and will spend approximately 20 minutes slicing the cherries that go in the cakes. 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,” he said. “If 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, and he hand-makes each cake that he bakes. He said he could not share the fruitcake recipe but gladly shares his recipe for peanut butter cookies.
“Everybody tells me that they can’t make them any better than I can,” McCloud said. “With the help of the Lord, I can make them better. The Lord has been good to me, so as long as I am alive I will do the best I can for him. I have to return the favor. I hope to have the best year ever this year.”
McCloud donates all of the proceeds from his fruitcake and cookie sales to Unaka Baptist Church, where he has served as a deacon since the church was formed. He also sells pecans and donates the money from those items to the church as well. He noted the pastor at the church had recruited all of the church members to promote the fruitcakes and to help sell them.
He continues to bake the cakes against the advice of his doctors. McCloud has to use oxygen treatments and has suffered numerous heart attacks. He said the doctors also told him that his internal organs are like those of a 94-year-old man even though he is only 80 years old.
McCloud attributes the cause of his health problems to the chemicals he was exposed to while being held as a prisoner of war during the Korean War. Because of his health concerns, the doctors have advised him not to continue baking at the strenuous pace he sets for himself.
“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. I told the doctors I will listen to them on everything except for this.”
On the morning of the STAR’s visit to his home, McCloud had been baking since the early-morning hours. He had also had a visit from a customer from Abingdon, Va., who purchased five fruitcakes after hearing about the treats.
After he is finished baking, he will read between 12 and 20 chapters of the Bible and will go over his prayer list that contains 600 names.
Baking the fruitcakes and the cookies is not just a holiday event for McCloud. He bakes them year-round.
“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. He has also sent them to customers in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. He said an out-of-state customer had purchased extra cakes to send to their family members in France.
His fruitcakes are now $12 and the peanut butter cookies are $3. He has them in regular and sugar-free versions. To place an order, call McCloud at 474-2112.
Peanut Butter Cookies
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1-1/2 cups canola oil
4 cups all-purpose flour
Mix oil, eggs and sugars together. Add in the remaining ingredients. Make dough into balls and place on cookie sheet. Press cookies with fork to flatten.
Bake at 350 degrees until brown.
This week’s column was written by Ashley Rader, the city reporter for the Elizabethton STAR.
To submit your own recipes or suggest a person for “Chef’s Corner,” email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 297-9077.