AVA, Mo. When the monks of Assumption Abbey no longer could support themselves by producing cement blocks, they decided to make fruitcake. Fifteen years and thousands of cakes later, there is no denying that the little monastery and its 12 monks have created a niche market.
Some find humor in the transition, the Rev. Anthony Sloan acknowledges.
“Sure, there have been jokes, but I think anyone who has tasted our fruitcake would agree that they are moist and delicious,” he said.
Assumption Abbey is one of 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States supported through the production and sale of special foods. The modest bakery is running at full capacity now, with orders shipped to stores and individuals across the country, Canada and Europe.
“I just shipped five cakes to Great Britain and one to Ireland,” said Father Sloan, who runs the bakery.
The monks will have made 31,544 cakes when their 11-month baking period ends before the new year. The abbey expects to sell each of the $26 cakes and turn away potential customers with no advertising.
One bite of the rich, moist cake with a lingering kick of rum is all that many people need. Some customers send notes and e-mail messages of thanks. Many admit to buying extras because they can’t restrain themselves.
Their business in rural Ava, about 30 miles north of the Arkansas border, depends on a delicate balance between monastic life marked by contemplation, study and worship and making a living.
Trappist monks take a vow of poverty, but they must provide for themselves. So, they have found a way to integrate high-speed modems and toll-free telephone lines into their lives of contemplation and solitude.
“It’s amazing how fruitcake seems to have an endless market, even though people make a lot of jokes about them,” said the Rev. Mark Scott, abbot of Assumption Abbey.
Life in the cloister is rooted in simplicity, but the struggle to make a living in the rocky, rolling Ozark Mountains has not been easy. The monks took up farming when Assumption Abbey opened in 1950 but had little success.
They switched to making cement blocks in the 1960s, dredging their creek for materials. Then, in the 1980s, the industry underwent a shakeout, and it became clear that only the large companies were going to survive.
With a few reservations, the monks switched to fruitcakes in 1987.
After a modest first year, when they made 6,000 cakes, production has increased steadily. Now the monastery’s bakery is running at full capacity, turning cakes out of the oven 125 at a time.
The monks use an exclusive recipe created by St. Louis pastry chef Jean-Pierre Auge, who once was employed by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He gave them eight recipes, and they settled on one.
“We don’t have any intentions of changing it,” Father Sloan said. “In fact, we are very protective of our recipe.”
It calls for 70 percent fruit and nuts to 30 percent batter. A mixture of cherries, raisins and pineapple is marinated for three days in burgundy wine.
Monks wearing aprons over their black robes labor in the bakery two hours in the morning, mixing the batter and baking the cakes in the 300-degree oven. The finished cakes are decorated with four pecan halves carefully placed to form a cross and injected with an ounce of Puerto Rican rum.
They return for two hours in the afternoon to review orders and prepare the 2-pound cakes for pickup by United Parcel Service.
The work is relatively simple, allowing the monks to free their minds for prayer and scriptural reflection, Brother Simin Praep said.
“It’s enjoyable work,” he said, as he sealed cakes in plastic wrap and placed them in tins.
The abbey’s biggest customer is San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma Inc. a retailer of bedding, cookware, furniture, bath and storage products and tableware which has ordered 13,000 cakes this year. Founder Chuck Williams said he became hooked in 1988 after receiving one as a gift. His stores and catalogs began selling them the following year.
“It really is good,” said Mr. Williams, who confesses to buying one for himself every Christmas. “I don’t know how they do it.” Devout customers snap them up early, he said. “I know a good many years we have run out.”
There is no question the monks could sell more fruitcakes, but they do not want to automate or hire outside workers.
“Our monastic life carries over into the bakery,” Father Sloan said. “Our goal is not to be rich. We can only make a certain amount of fruitcakes.”