You won't find Assumption Abbey unless you’re looking for it – and maybe not even then. You might drive through Ava, Missouri, the closest town to the monastery, on your way to Arkansas on state Highway 5. The Douglas County town of just fewer than 3,000 is about an hour southeast of Springfield. Yet even here, you’re still a good 20 miles from the secluded abbey. From Ava, state Highway N winds through lush Ozark hills and forests. Radio reception is spotty and cell reception is nonexistent. Eventually, a gravel road angles through the trees up to a complex that looks not unlike a forgotten summer camp. It’s here that an order of Trappist monks make 30,000 traditional English-style fruitcakes a year.
At about 5:30am, five days a week and every other Saturday, Michael Hogue arrives at the abbey's bakery. He’s not a monk – he’s not even Catholic – but he’s been the head baker at Assumption for five years. He lives about a mile up the road, which is partly why he took the job.
“Father Cyprian showed up at my house one day, and said that the monks were getting old and they wanted somebody to help out,” Hogue says, referring to the monastery’s superior. “I showed up for work and I’m still here.” Hogue and bakery manager Michael Hampton were hired to help out the dwindling community.
Each morning, Hogue mixes the fruitcake batter by hand. In the center of the kitchen, there are big plastic bins with dried fruit and nuts. The candied and dried fruit – which includes pineapple, cherries, lemon and orange peels, black and golden raisins and currants – is soaked for two weeks in four gallons of Burgundy wine. Hogue combines the fruit mixture in a large metal container with flour, eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, walnuts, vanilla and cinnamon. He scoops batter into round cake pans lined with red paper, and baking assistant Father Basil makes sure batter is distributed evenly and that each one is perfect. He then places the pans onto baking trays and slides the trays into tall sheet-pan racks where they’ll stay until it’s time to bake.
“I dream about fruitcake,” Hogue chuckles.
The monastery was gifted an oven from a St. Louis supermarket in the late 1980s. It takes up almost an entire wall and features 20 trays that rotate upwards in a circular motion, almost like cars on a Ferris wheel. The team bakes 126 cakes in the oven daily.
Three or four additional brothers arrive a few hours after Hogue, dressed in civilian clothes (T-shirts, khakis, button-up shirts, fleece jackets), and begin decorating cakes baked the previous day. Each fruitcake gets eight squirts of rum – about an ounce total – from injector needles. They’re then brushed with a splash of hot corn syrup before the brothers add pecans, arranged in the shape of a cross. Red and green cherries are next, and the final touch is another glaze of syrup.
The fruitcakes are shipped all over the world, but of course, the bulk of orders come during the holiday months. Cakes have been sent to Australia, South Korea and Iran. This year marks the 30th anniversary of fruitcakes being baked at the abbey, a tradition that has, over the years, gained the attention of national and international media and become a holiday ritual of its own for thousands of families.
Assumption Abbey was established in 1950, an offshoot of New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, near Dubuque. The monks belong to the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance; they’re more familiarly called Trappists. They follow the rule of St. Benedict: stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience. Trappists don’t take a vow of silence, but as contemplative monks, many are encouraged only to speak when necessary. Because the order is independent and not supported by any parish, mission or school, it must be self-sufficient.
“We’re called contemplative monks; we live a life of intercessory prayer [praying for others] and sacrifice,” says Father Cyprian. “Because we don’t serve [people] hands on, we shouldn’t live by their charity but by the work of our own hands.”
Many monasteries rely on farming, he says, and Assumption tried that for about 10 years. The land – 3,400 acres – was gifted to New Melleray Abbey in 1950 by wealthy newspaperman Joseph Pierson. Pierson had experienced ancient monastic orders in Europe during World War I, when he started the first overseas edition of the Chicago Tribune in Paris. “The only conditions he gave were that there be a few rooms for guests and that, if the new foundation failed before 60 years passed, then the property would return to his family,” according to the monastery’s official history.
The first winter was spent “pioneering.” Six monks had arrived from New Melleray on Sept. 24, 1950, and found the house, a Swiss chalet-style building built by Pierson and his sons during World War II, without running water, electricity or central heating. First, the monks raised sheep, and then they tried to establish a dairy herd – then orchards, then a vineyard. But the combination of Ozark hills, rocky soil and lack of pasture made farming less than ideal. For the next 25 years, the brothers dredged sand and gravel out of the property’s creeks to make cement blocks.
In 1971, the monks moved into their permanent monastery, built with money from the cement block plant. It’s shaped like a cross, and includes a chapel, infirmary, library, kitchen, refectory, guest house and classrooms. By the 1980s, though, the “recession and competition were too much for [the] concrete block industry,” and Assumption searched for a few years for a new means of income. Louise Salmon, the wife of an Episcopal priest in St. Louis, suggested the brothers get into the fruitcake business in 1987; there were a few other monasteries across the country already baking and selling them.
“She knew this French chef in St. Louis who had been a chef for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the pastry chef for Charles de Gaulle for a couple of years,” Father Cyprian says. “She asked him if he had any fruitcake recipes, and he sent us a half-dozen. We chose a couple and kind of refined them a bit and were able to make a cake. He said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good cake – you can use my name.’”
The chef was Jean-Pierre Augé, who had indeed cooked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, aka King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, as well as de Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth II, the American Embassy in France and more. He came to the U.S. in 1964 to work for the father of the former ambassador to France. “The Duchess,” he told The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1981 of Simpson, “was not the easiest person to work for.” When Salmon consulted him on behalf of Assumption Abbey, he was teaching cooking classes in St. Louis and working as the chef for Mark Twain Bank.
His fruitcake recipe follows the classic English style: rich, full of nuts and fruit and most importantly, moist. “I gave them some recipes, they made it, brought it back, and I thought everything was very good, so I helped them to start the business,” Augé says today in his thick French accent. “When I was with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Paris, we used to do that for the holiday. The English – they always like to have fruitcake.”
Several sources – The New York Times, the Village Voice and Saveur, among others – attribute the fruitcake’s fall from favor in America to Johnny Carson. “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake,” Carson said on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1985. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.” Mass-produced mail-order fruitcakes first debuted in 1913, and the phrase “nutty as a fruitcake” appeared in 1935. By midcentury – and well before Carson's famous joke – fruitcakes were considered the lazy person’s holiday gift.
Fruitcakes weren't always so maligned: They actually date back to the ancient Romans. A similar cake appears in De Re Coquinaria (or The Art of Cooking), a fifth-century cookbook, one of the oldest surviving culinary texts. The Romans’ version, called satura, meaning a mixed dish, includes pine nuts, raisins, wine, almonds and barley mash. A more recognizable fruitcake became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages; most importantly, Pope Innocent VIII granted the use of butter without paying a fine (for royals, at least) in 1490. By the 17th century, the abundance of sugar from the American colonies made fruitcakes ubiquitous in Europe. Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding cake was a 14-inch deep fruitcake (called plum cake in England); Kate Middleton’s was multi-tiered and frosted in fondant, but a fruitcake nonetheless.
First lady Martha Washington’s recipe for fruitcake – she dubbed it Great Cake – is not unlike the one used by Assumption Abbey, with golden raisins, currants, candied orange and lemon peel, candied red and green cherries, sugar, butter, nutmeg, brandy and sherry. She advised aging the cake in brandy-soaked cheesecloth for at least a month, but Assumption Abbey fruitcakes are aged in rum for a minimum of two months.
“The rum really helps to meld the flavors together during the aging process,” Hampton says. “My personal preference is [that] six months tastes the best. If you tasted a new cake and aged cake, I think you could tell the difference. The new cake has a much stronger rum flavor, but in the aged cake, it’s kind of a mixture of everything – the rum’s in the background.”
After the cakes are decorated, the brothers remove them from the pans, cover them in plastic wrap and heat-seal them before they’re packaged in white tins and stacked inside a warehouse adjacent to the kitchen to age. The brothers who do the decorating, as well as bakery assistant Father Basil, are newly arrived from Vietnam. So far there are eight Vietnamese brothers, and Assumption is expecting four more by the end of the year.
“They came in as an experiment to see if it would work to integrate two communities, and it worked out well,” Hampton explains. “They learned the business and they’re happy, I think, here. Eventually – probably sooner than later – there’s gonna be a transition of power.”
The Vietnamese brothers are in varying stages of learning English; they speak Vietnamese to each other as they top the fruitcakes with pecans and cherries, but stop occasionally to joke with Hogue and Hampton. Some are in their 20s, but others are much older.
“Our program is a blending and then a transfer,” says Father Cyprian. “Our American monks are getting old – at present, the Vietnamese are guests, but in a few years, the plan, which is working well, is to transfer everything here to them. It will be their monastic community, and we will stay here as their guests until we join our brothers in the cemetery.”
Hogue reckons his time at the monastery is about up as well, as the Vietnamese brothers have got the baking routine down. Hampton, who came to the abbey after working as an IT consultant on the monastery’s computer system, will probably continue to manage the bakery, including ordering supplies and shipping fruitcake orders, for the foreseeable future.
Probably 95 percent of the monastery’s operating budget comes from fruitcake sales, Hampton estimates. A big boost came in 1989, when the cakes were added to the famous Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog. The annual gift guide brought the fruitcakes into the homes of people across the country; at its height, Assumption Abbey was selling 14,000 cakes – about 90 percent of its output – through Williams-Sonoma. At one point, the brothers even sold their fruitcakes at brick-and-mortar Williams-Sonoma stores.
Carmine Fiore, director of food development and sourcing for Williams-Sonoma, says Assumption Abbey fruitcakes were always a favorite of company founder Chuck Williams. Each year the monks set aside enough of the “prized fruitcake” for Williams to sell. “This is not your everyday fruitcake,” Fiore says. “It won’t get passed on. [It’s] very dark, very spicy and well-laced with rum.”
Today, the monks bake five or six days a week, February through December, and generally sell out of their stock of 30,000 cakes by the end of the year; Williams-Sonoma accounts for about 3,000 orders these days, with an additional 10,000 sold through various retail shops across the country.
“It’s a simple operation – there’s nothing complicated about it,” Hampton says. “Everything is done by hand, and we come out here and do the same thing every day all year long. Plus, it’s really a good product, on top of that.”
Father Cyprian also says the fruitcakes fit much better into the monastic life than the cement block plant ever did. “As we get older,” he says, “it’s much easier to stack fruitcakes than to stack cement blocks, for one thing.”
After the morning’s fruitcakes have been decorated, it’s time for the blessing. The brothers and bakers circle around the unpackaged cakes and pass around laminated prayer sheets. The call-and-response style reading is led by Hampton and Brother Alfonse, a young Vietnamese monk wearing a University of Texas baseball cap. Hogue stands outside of the circle with his hands behind his back – but he knows each response by heart. The blessing, which includes a Bible reading from Brother Alfonse, ends with a simple prayer:
“O God, creator of all things, bless now these creations of our hands, that these cakes may be received as tokens of your love and shared with friends as hints of your Eucharistic feast. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ incarnate in our midst. Amen.”
Tomorrow – as Hogue puts it, “like the movie Groundhog Day” – the brothers will commune once more and do it all over again.
Assumption Abbey, Ava, Missouri, assumptionabbey.org