The good, true spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas is on a Hollywood back street above Franklin and below the hills, just west of sagging homes and last night's muggings.
It's at 1977 Carmen Ave., where the Monastery of the Angels has expanded a grandmother's secret into a cottage industry. It produces Monastery Pumpkin Bread, a nourishment of soul and season.
"It's really a complete cycle of Christmas," Mother Mary Thomas explained. She's in her 45th year at the monastery, which hasn't been there much longer. "We like to offer people something they can use as a Christmas gift, something inexpensive yet very acceptable like homemade pumpkin bread. Those who buy then enjoy the pleasure of giving. Their purchases help finance our monastery . . . and we just feel like we are sharing and participating in all the Christmas happiness."
Fourteen years ago, the 26-nun assembly line at the monastery was geared to sweeter teeth and a stickier sweetmeat. Fruitcake. But the cost of purity, whole cherries, pineapple, halved pecans and walnuts was quick to gallop beyond profits ("today, for a 1 1/2-pound fruitcake, we'd have to charge $15") and production halted.
"But we had a Canadian sister, Mary Agnes Burton, who had her grandmother's recipe for pumpkin bread," Mother Mary Thomas continued. "One day she prepared a meal for the community and made seven loaves. The bread vanished.
"Then she made loaves for Guild card parties. They disappeared. We decided to bake and sell 40 loaves at $1 a loaf. It also vanished. Then it got to be 80 loaves a day--and now it's 600 a day for those two weeks around Christmas."
That means--with the aromatic bread deliciously established as a Los Angeles insider's must for Thanksgiving, Easter, Passover, Whitsun and weekends with the in-laws--that monastery ovens currently are baking 12,000 loaves a year, year round.
"Pumpkin bread produces about a quarter of our income," said Mother Mary Thomas. It also generates about 90% of the monastery's reputation. "Sometimes the sisters have to see a doctor or a dentist and when we tell them where we are from, they say: 'Oh, you're the sisters who make the pumpkin bread.' We could be called the Monastery of Pumpkin Bread."
The 60-year-old monastery and its Dominican nuns are cloistered as much by Hollywood surroundings as by their order. The neighborhood is dingy, a cluster of frightened homes and firetrap clapboard. The monastery hides behind barbed wire, barred windows, buzzered doors and an ungodly guard dog.
But maybe, Mother Mary Thomas believes, that is as it should be. "It's a reminder that there's another world," she said. "It stands as a beacon to God."
So as long as there are nuns to serve, she said, there will be a Monastery of the Angels and Angelenos to save by both prayer and pumpkin bread. And diets to corrupt with other offerings for the season: hand-dipped chocolates with peanut butter, caramel and mint centers; peanut brittle; fudge; butter toffee; mints, and a devilish candy called divinity.
The monastery does not deliver. A loaf of pumpkin bread (almost two pounds) costs $3.25; 100 loaves, $325, representing a bulk-purchase saving of absolutely nothing.
Seasonal baking is under way and so are sales to downtown attorneys, several hospitals, Paramount and Universal studios, J. J. Master Electric Co., which gives pumpkin bread to special customers, and Callanan Mortuary, distribution unknown.
The recipe is no longer a monastery secret. It has been published. But, insists Mother Mary Thomas, public pumpkin bread will never be as good as theirs.
"We make ours in a large commercial oven where the bread revolves in a chamber of heat that penetrates the whole loaf for thorough cooking," she said. "You can't do that at home where the cooking becomes uneven."
There's one other difference. Mother Mary Thomas said she doesn't want to be the one to tell. But it has something to do with pumpkin bread made by angels' hands. . . .