December 21, 1997 in Nation/World

Fruitcake Friars Are Slice Of Life Holiday Icons Big Hit For Resourceful Monks Of Assumption Abbey

John Rogers Associated Press
 

For decades, the monks of Assumption Abbey toiled quietly among the picturesque Ozark hills, eking out a living from the land by making concrete blocks.

Then, 10 years ago, they got a better idea: Why not make fruitcakes instead?

“Actually, there are a lot of similarities,” said Father Theodore, the soft-spoken Trappist monk who runs the small monastery deep in the winding, rolling hills about 30 miles north of Arkansas.

“We do use the same type of mold,” he said, chuckling. “It’s just not quite as large.” He wasn’t entirely joking - some of the concrete molds have the same doughnut-like shape as the rich, moist, rum-scented cakes.

The 23,000 fruitcakes the monastery produced this year are not nearly as hard as concrete blocks, though they are dense at two pounds each.

Still, it is hard to shake long-standing notions. Father Theodore cheerfully points out a Christmas card the monastery received, with a drawing of a monstrous-looking fruitcake and the admonition, “Just think of it as a doorstop.”

Ten years, and tens of thousands of fruitcakes later, the little monastery and its 14 monks seemingly have few complaints.

After a modest first year that resulted in 6,000 cakes, production grew steadily to nearly four times that. Now the monastery’s modest bakery is nearly at full capacity, with cakes coming out of the oven 125 at a time.

The monks bake from shortly after the beginning of the year until Thanksgiving, which gives the cakes time to age.

Then, it’s a month of furiously shipping to stores and individuals across the country, Canada and Europe in time for Christmas.

Indeed, during a recent day at the Abbey, which sits amid 3,400 acres of rolling hills, streams and forest far off any main highway, 900 fruitcakes went out the door.

Despite the activity, things remain sedate. It is a monastery, after all.

The monks are up long before dawn, and silence prevails through morning prayer and breakfast. Then it is time for work, and talk, before prayers again at early evening and silence begins.

The goal of a monk, said Father Theodore, is simple: “Love and serve God and be with him when you die.”

But while monks take a vow of poverty, they must provide for themselves through life’s journey. So, when Assumption Abbey opened in 1950 its monks took up farming, with little success in the rocky, hilly soil.

They switched to making concrete blocks in the 1960s, dredging their creek for materials. Then in the ‘80s the industry underwent a shakeout and only big companies remained. So they switched again, to fruitcakes.

Father Theodore had reservations. “I never cared for fruitcake.”

The monks sought the help of Chef Jean-Pierre Auge of St. Louis, who once worked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He gave them eight recipes, and they settled on one.

It calls for 70 percent fruit and nuts to 30 percent batter. The fruit is marinated in burgundy wine for days and the finished cake is injected with an ounce of rum.

The final product won over even the skeptical Father Theodore.

While a monk realizes he will never reach perfection on this earth, Father Theodore will now humbly acknowledge that many people have said, when it comes to baking fruitcakes, the monks of Assumption Abbey come close.

“I think it’s the ounce of rum. That may be the secret,” he said, offering a slice.


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