A Labor of Loaves

Hometown Heroes, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 19, 2000

Fruitcakes from the monks of Assumption Abbey don't fit the mold.

When comedians suggest "Get even; send fruitcake," the Assumption Abbey bakers 20 miles south of Ava, Mo., quietly agree. Their version of the often ridiculed dessert contains no little hard things to gum up the teeth, or dry, beady crumbs to rasp the tongue. With a personal touch and holiday spirits, the 20 Trappist monks turn the curse of Christmas into a year-round blessing.

"It's like cake," says Minneapolis admirer Rose Koelln. "It has good texture, marvelous flavor, and just the right amount of fruit. We buy 20 a year to eat and give as gifts."

Dark, moist, and chewy, the abbey fruitcake is 70 percent fruit. Softened three days in burgundy, its pineapple, cherries, raisins, currants, orange and lemon peel, and walnuts never fall with a thud on the plate.

"The combination of batter, fruit, and how they're put together makes it an excellent fruitcake," says Father Anthony, bakery manager.

Making fruitcake is a country-kitchen operation. Working in pairs, the monks mix ingredients by hand, measure the batter into 2-pound portions, and smooth the tops with an ordinary tablespoon. Using a medical syringe, they inject the baked cakes with Puerto Rican rum and seal them with corn syrup. They garnish with two pecans, two cherries, and two citron halves. Shrink wrapped on a plate warmer, the fruitcakes age for up to 10 months in modest, white tins until they are sold to customers around the world.

The abbey's daily kitchen quota, 125 cakes, is made between seven services of prayer. Devoted to contemplation, the Trappists begin spiritual responsibilities at 3:30 a.m. and end at 8:30 p.m. Only songbirds and the call-to-worship bell disturb the tranquility.

"We try to keep a balance between work, prayer, and reading," says Father Ted, an abbey resident for 40 years.

The Trappists live behind a thatch of wildflowers and oak trees. They venture out for groceries, chainsaw repair, or to take a stray dog to the vet. Ava residents barely notice when they come to town.

"They are silent members of the community," says Keith Moore, Douglas County Herald editor. "They don't wear robes or use titles, so you'd never guess they're monks. I know several are faithful donors to the blood mobile only by recognizing their names on the donor list."

The monks moved to southern Missouri from the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1950 and quickly discovered that life in the Ozark foothills was a challenge. The rocky soil couldn't support cattle, vineyards, or fruit orchardsthe monks' usual money-making ventures. Pines on the 3,400-acre monastery grounds flourished near the tree line; unfortunately, the pine post market collapsed. They operated a concrete block business until declining sales and labor-intensive gravel dredging made the monks consider other ways to support themselves.

"We even considered burning wood for liturgical charcoal," says Father Ted. "But that required gunpowdervery messy, very dangerous."

Instead, the men chose fruitcakes and the recipe of St. Louis chef Jean-Pierre Auge. "He had worked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor," says Father Anthony. "The English serve tea and fruitcakes year round."

Today, the monks sell 12,000 cakes through phone, fax, and Internet orders, sending their $21 holiday dessert to 50 states, England, Germany, France, Iceland, and Australia. Customers who brave the hairpin turns to the abbey grounds buy another thousand, and Williams-Sonoma stores take 12,000 more.

Working six days, February through November, the monks aren't tempted to mechanize, despite selling out of fruitcake every year. "The bakery is here to support our monastic life," says Father Anthony. "Making more fruitcakes would interfere with that."

By Christmas, the monks of Assumption Abbey stand accountable for 25 tons of holiday dessert. Yet once their fruitcake is sampled, they never have to ask anyone's forgiveness.