Conway baker makes a fruitcake that gets respect

By:Gwen Fowler


You’ve heard all the fruitcake jokes: They make a great doorstop. They’re the perfect gift because there’s no way the Postal Service can damage them. Late comedian Johnny Carson joked that only one fruitcake actually existed in the world; it just kept getting passed from person to person.

But those jokes are about bad fruitcakes, says Barbara Whitley, the owner of Crady’s Restaurant in Conway and one of the best bakers in the country (but more about that later).

Whitley makes delicious fruitcakes by her mother’s recipe, and they are in demand by her customers. On a recent morning, she poured batter into small loaf pans she set on a kitchen scale, being sure that each weighed 1 ¼ pounds.

“I like for people to get what I promised them,” she said. The fruitcakes are $25 each.

Whitley’s mother, who died in December 1996, had made fruitcakes for years, and it became part of the Christmas tradition for Whitley, her four older brothers and her younger sister.

The next Christmas, Whitley decided to take on the baking of the fruitcakes for the family. That was before she owned Crady’s, and she made the cakes in her home kitchen.

“It was amazing how close to her I felt,” she said.

Her mother, Najgy Crady, made a slightly different version of the fruitcakes Whitley makes today.

“She could afford to only have candied cherries so she would use citron,” she said.

Whitley uses green cherries, red cherries, candied pineapples, pecans and walnuts in her cakes. The cinnamon and cloves give the batter a wonderful aroma – redolent is the way Whitley describes it.

So why does fruitcake have such a bad reputation? Often people have only had the ones that have been mass produced.

“They get hard,” she said. “Mine aren’t that way. And the citron is a turn-off for a lot of people because it becomes bitter after a while.”

Whitley, who said she inherited her baking abilities from her mother, has fond memories of getting home from school each day.

“We would come home and there would be this wonderful aroma because she made her own bread.” She also had cinnamon rolls, pie or cake waiting.

To this day, Whitley craves something sweet around 3 p.m. every day.

Crady’s is a family affair. Her husband, Les Whitley, a retired college biology professor, works there as well as their daughter, Heather. The restaurant serves lunch daily except for Sunday, when brunch is served. Dinner is served on the nights that a play is being performed at Theatre of the Republic across Main Street.

In addition to the baking and other desserts such as crème brulees, Whitley also makes the quiches for the restaurant. She jokes that she makes anything made of flour, butter, sugar and eggs.

While folks in Conway have long known that Whitley is a talented baker, she got recognition for one of her creations recently. U.S Foods sponsored a contest to choose the nation’s top chef in three categories. Whitley’s entry, Southern peach cupcake with apple butter cream frosting, placed fourth in the dessert category. It’s a moist, yummy dessert.

She didn’t win gold, silver or bronze, she said, but she is pleased with her “Bronzette” win.

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