AVA, Mo. — On this autumn morning, when the chapel bell tolls, a moonlit mist shrouds the monks' cloister in the thick woods of the Ozarks. Just before the "Great Silence" ends, at 3:15 a.m., Brother Gabriel Friend slips on a white habit and heads to prayer services in a chapel that hints of incense. A few hours later, in a bakery smelling of rum and sweet pineapple, Friend and the other brothers throw aprons over their everyday robes.
They are working against a pressing deadline now, these fruitcake bakers for Williams-Sonoma Inc. At Assumption Abbey, one of the most secluded Trappist monasteries in the world, the 20 monks cannot afford to entirely shut out the intrusions of society. Not with 28,000 two-pound fruitcakes to sell by Christmas and no other major means of support.
At monasteries nationwide, monks are hunkering down in bakeries and business offices to meet the holiday demand--yes, demand--for fruitcake.
Like other small specialty businesses, the monasteries are trying to keep pace with competitors, including bakeries that produce 2 million to 4 million pounds of fruitcake annually. The way monks do business depends on a delicate balance between traditional monastic life--marked by silence and separation from the world--and the realities of making a living. Contemplation and solitude must make room for toll-free phone lines and high-speed modems.
How monks got their start in fruitcakes is uncertain. Monasteries traditionally have big ovens for baking bread. Monks say fruitcakes are easy to make and store, and they age well. And while doing such simple tasks--mixing, weighing and pouring batter--the brothers can free their minds for prayer and Scripture reflection. Plus the demand is seasonal, so the phones go crazy only a few weeks a year.
"A big part of our monastic life is two words, fuga mundi, getting away from the world," said Father Jerome Machar at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y. He oversees the monastery's bakery, which cranks out as many as 50,000 loaves of bread a week and 20,000 fruitcakes a year. "Well, has the Internet and e-mail, and even telephone, breached the wall? We don't know yet. We're constantly trying to keep that notion of separateness and yet not be obtuse. All the monasteries are asking that same question: How much is right, and what's too much?"
In the U.S. Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, all 12 Trappist monasteries for men have Web pages and e-mail; four of them sell fruitcake. One Kentucky monastery does a $3.2-million business in cheese, fudge and fruitcake, and has 20 computers for 75 brothers. In Berryville, Va., with orders of two or more, Holy Cross Abbey throws in a free mouse pad advertising http://www.monasteryfruitcake.org. (Holy Cross once found that its Web page had been linked to an unauthorized home page for fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) On the Internet, one Michigan monastery sells a 3.5-pound millennium fruitcake for $80, plus shipping.
In southwest Missouri, the monks use an exclusive recipe donated by Jean-Pierre Auge, a former pastry chef to the duke and duchess of Windsor. A United Parcel Service van makes daily pickups at the monastery, 20 miles from the nearest town. Delivery trucks drop off cases of butter and burgundy wine. Holiday shoppers knock on the guest house door. Every year, the cakes sell out with no advertising.
This year the monks are baking six days a week, instead of the usual five, for 11 months. For the first time, they are taking Internet orders, http://www.trappistmonks.com. They will make about 5,000 more cakes this year than usual, partly because San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma has increased its order, although the monastery sells most of its cakes--at $24 each--directly to individuals (prices are higher through other outlets). The monks range in age from 21 to 76, and they all work in the bakery except for senior brothers who are in bad health and one officially designated as a hermit priest who lives in the woods.
The bakery is noisy with the thud of emptied walnut boxes thrown on the floor and the whir of electric mixers twirling through 130-pound vats of batter. On this morning, Friend and the crew hustle to place 125 cakes into a 300-degree oven. Two hours later, the cakes come out, smelling like Christmas. Friend, 49, does not forget why he is here. Over each cake, he says a prayer.
'It Smells Like Heaven'
"Let's go, Kevin!" Friend yells to a 21-year-old monk, clapping his hands twice. They have only a couple of hours to mix and pour the thick batter into round tins. The currants, citron and other fruit are soaked in burgundy wine. The dark cake is rich, dense and moist, with a lingering kick-of-rum taste.
Friend hates fruitcake and doesn't eat it. But "wait until you smell it when it comes out of the oven," he says. "It smells like heaven."
He grumbles about strict state health regulations that require him to scrunch a hairnet over his 9-inch graying goatee.