Q: I was born in Corsicana, a place famous for Wolf Brand Chili and fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery. No true Texan eats canned chili, and I’m not sure many eat fruitcake, either. In fact, was Johnny Carson correct when he said that there’s only one fruitcake in the world and people just keep sending it to each other? And if that’s true, then what else does Corsicana have to brag about?
Dan Montgomery, Fredericksburg
A: Fruitcake, canned chili, late-night talk show intrigue, all set in one of Texas’s most-storied little towns? The Texanist’s drool glands have been activated. So, thanks for reaching out, Mr. Montgomery. Let’s dig right in, shall we?
It is a universal Texas truth that Corsicana is famous for the world-famous fruitcake made at Collin Street Bakery. And it’s just as true that the town of your birth is also famous for the world’s most famous canned chili, Wolf Brand, though it’s likely that fewer folks are familiar with the famous Corsicana chili than they are with the famous Corsicana fruitcake.
But before an unintentional beef (rim shot) is ignited with the Wolf Brand folks, let the Texanist step in here for sec. The assertion that true Texans don’t consume canned chili simply does not stand up to the available facts. First off, the Texanist, who happens to be a true Texan, has consumed Wolf Brand chili on numerous occasions during his lifetime. Is it the best chili he’s ever had? No, it is not. That distinction, now that he’s thinking about it, likely goes to his own piquant preparation. But it is, he would say, the best canned chili he has ever eaten. Secondly, the Texanist reached out to Wolf Brand’s people, and it turns out that over the past twelve months alone the company has sold a whopping $100 million worth of canned chili—and $61 million of that was sold in Texas, where seven out of every ten cans of chili pulled from the grocery-store shelves are Wolf Brand chili. So, it would appear that true Texans are eating canned chili—and lots of it.
The Texanist would further remind you, while we’re momentarily paused here on canned chili, that Wolf Brand has stood the test of time. Before your fellow Corsicanan Lyman T. Davis opened a meat market and began selling his chili under the brand name Lyman’s Famous Home Made Chili in (the Texanist checks his notes) “brick form,” and before he began canning the stuff and rebranded it as Wolf Brand Chili in honor of (the Texanist checks his notes again) a pet wolf who went by the name of Kaiser Bill, he was selling his meaty concoction for a nickel a bowl from the back of a wagon on the streets of your hometown way back in 1895.
Though the Texanist could happily wax endlessly on the history of, cooking of, and consumption of our official state dish, the meat (rim shot) of the matter with which you have come to the Texanist, Mr. Montgomery, involves another issue of no small concern. Specifically, you had a rather pointed question about fruitcake, the reliability of Johnny Carson on the subject thereof, and, additionally, whether the renown Corsicana has earned from this ancient confection is rightfully earned and therefore worth bragging about.
The Texanist grew up watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and though he doesn’t remember viewing the episode in which Johnny disparaged fruitcake or even know for sure that this actually happened, his research suggests that the bit in question likely dates to November 1978. The actual Carson quote, by the way, reportedly goes, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
Johnny’s jab—this was not the only one, as it was kind of a running gag of his through the years; once, he had a forklift drop a fruitcake on his desk, with predictably calamitous results—was intended to be humorous, of course. But, surely unintentionally, Carson’s repeated lampooning of the fruit-laden foodstuff rippled across the land and is, believe it or not, thought to be responsible for a shift in the nation’s perception of fruitcake. Before Carson began his yearslong campaign against the fruitcake, it was a beloved staple of the American pantry. Afterward, it became a national joke. A lengthy blog post (more than thirteen hundred words) on this very subject can even be found on the Collin Street Bakery’s website
Still, contrary to what you may think, and despite the Carson crack, the Collin Street Bakery, which came into being when August Weidmann, a German immigrant who opened his Corsicana bakeshop with an old-country fruitcake recipe in hand in 1896, just one year after Lyman T. Davis began ladling out his chili, sells a whole lot of fruitcake. In fact, according to Hayden Crawford, a partner at Collin Street, the bakery sells some 1.5 million fruitcakes across an astonishing 196 countries annually. And about 900,000 of those million and a half fruitcakes go to households right here in Texas. Collin Street counts among its enormous clientele Monaco’s Princess Caroline, television game-show icon Vanna White, Refugio-born-and-Alvin-raised baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, and Klein native Lyle Lovett, among other notable names.
So, it would appear that there is, in fact, more than just one fruitcake in the world, and at least some Texans—apparently hundreds of thousands of them—who enjoy them quite a bit. The Texanist himself is rather partial to Collin Street’s popular DeLuxe model, particularly after he’s “doctored” it up with generous amounts of bourbon, rum, or brandy. The boozy enhancement serves to moisten the cake and, not incidentally, slightly lubricate the Texanist, too. The Texanist—hic!—highly recommends it.
But what else does Corsicana have to brag about, other than the more-estimable-than-you-have-suggested canned chili and fruitcakes? Well, how about being home to the state’s very first commercially viable oilfield, which was accidentally discovered in 1894, a good seven years before Beaumont’s more celebrated Spindletop gusher came in? Or how about Navarro College’s lauded cheer program, which was the focus of last year’s blockbuster Netflix docuseries, Cheer? Or what about that insanely whacky embezzlement that occurred at the Collin Street Bakery and was so entertainingly reported on by the Texanist’s old friend and esteemed colleague Katy Vine in these very pages back in 2016? Or what about the fact that Corsicana is, by the Texanist’s estimation, home to a disproportionate number of notable Texans for a town its size. Take, for instance, this small sampling: country music legend Lefty Frizzell, honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver, jazz saxophone great David “Fathead” Newman, comely star of the silent screen Mary Brian, and late Texas governor Beauford Jester, for whom one of the world’s largest residential dormitories, located on the southern end of UT-Austin’s campus, was named. The list goes on and on.
The Texanist could go on too, but he won’t. Instead, he’ll just answer the question at hand as plainly and simply as he can. Can you be proud to claim Corsicana as your hometown? Let the Texanist just put it this way: of course-you-cana!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.