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Brother can you spare a fruitcake?

Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey contemplates the world from a wooded slope in Yamhill County, Oregon. Reached only by a narrow county road, the abbey is not a place one happens onto by accident. Its monks have been steered here by a sense of vocation. Retreatants come for weekends to sample the atmosphere of meditative solitude.

My pilgrimage was more secular. I had heard that Our Lady of Guadalupe baked a dynamite fruitcake.

Fondness for fruitcake is not, I am aware, a popular devotion. No other foodstuff is so scorned (with the possible exception of brussels sprouts). I don't care. My feelings for fruitcake are ecumenical. I love Catholic fruitcakes, which often contain liquor, and Baptist fruitcakes, which do not. I love fruitcakes baked by elderly aunts, fruitcakes found in supermarket bargain bins, and fruitcakes that glisten in the gourmet sections of department stores. I love the gift fruitcakes my friends can't stand, and I count it as a good year when I'm still snacking on these Christmas castoffs come Valentine's Day. In fact, fruitcake once even served as cupid's dart: when my wife and I were dating, one sign the relationship might become permanent was our mutual discovery that we could happily make a dinner out of a fruitcake washed down with a nice merlot.

But I know this is a minority opinion. "The little green bits drive me crazy," my friends say. Or: "Of course fruitcake never goes bad. It was never good to begin with." Father Richard, business manager of Our Lady of Guadalupe, told me that he's heard most of the anti-fruitcake remarks, too. "Even the guy who drives our delivery truck said, 'You know, I can't think of anybody who likes fruitcake.'"

A slender man in his late 40s, Father Richard has been at Our Lady of Guadalupe since 1969. The Trappists have been around a good bit longer. Cistercian followers of the monastic Rule of St. Benedict, they trace their roots to 1664 and the founding of the French abbey of La Trappe, whose abbot instilled the Trappist adherence to physical labor, silence, and prayer. Today, monks are permitted to talk to one another, and contacts with the outside world have increased. Nevertheless, the Trappist regimen remains austere. Our Lady of Guadalupe's 37 monks rise at 3:30 in the morning to celebrate mass, to pray, to meditate. The workday runs from 8:15 A.M. to 12:15 P.M.; it is followed by an afternoon and evening of more meditation and prayer.

"We attempt to be self-sufficient," Father Richard explained as he showed me around the abbey. "We used to make pews. But the pew business died out in the 1960s--too many churches use folding chairs now." Today some monks spend their morning work period running a book-binding and repair business. A new and rapidly growing venture is the warehousing of Pinot Noirs and Rieslings for the Willamette Valley's burgeoning wine industry. And the monks make fruitcake.

The fruitcake recipe was developed by Father Arnold, a former prior at the monastery. "It was a community process," recalls Brother Eugene, who oversees the baking. "Father set out samples for us and we gave him responses--you know, too much of this, not enough of that." Today Brother Eugene uses this recipe to bake the fruitcakes about the way you would, assuming you ever would. "Two and three-quarter hours at 275 [degrees]. Then we dip the cakes in 120-proof brandy. A 3-pound cake will absorb 1/2 ounce of brandy--it's so dense it won't absorb more. Finally, we age each cake for three months."

The result? A fine fruitcake, dense and sweet. The Trappist Abbey's fruitcake lacks the festive green citron that I like and so many loathe, but it is rich with raisins and walnuts and candied pineapple and cherries. The three months' aging ensures that disparate elements merge into a harmonious, overwhelming whole, a taste experience I can compare only to great music--think of the melding of voices in the Hallelujah chorus, or in the Phil Spector version of "White Christmas."

The abbey's fruitcake output is 80 cakes a day for eight months, or about 20,000 fruitcakes each year. That's small potatoes compared to big-time bakeries. The emperor of the mail-order fruitcake, Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, bakes 80,000 pounds of fruitcake per day during its October-December high season, for a total of 1.5 million fruitcakes. But the monks have shied away from expansion. Last year a Korean company asked the monastery to bake fruitcakes to be sold in vending machines throughout Korea and Japan. The idea of people buying Our Lady of Guadalupe fruitcakes in the Tokyo subway appealed to the monks, but they declined. Says Father Richard, "We really don't like anything that smacks of big business."

That is just as well. The Trappist Abbey fruitcake does fine just as it is. I bought a 3-pound sample, and after I finished talking with Father Richard, I took it out of its box. Like all fruitcakes, it was dowdy and unpromising, the lump of coal you don't want in your stocking. But I removed its cellophane wrapping and savored the heady aroma of brandy and sugar and spices. I cut myself a thick slice. I lifted it up to the sun. Light streamed through the candied fruit as through a stained-glass window, and it seemed to me I held all of Christmas in my hand.
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Title Annotation:Western Wanderings; Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, Yamhill County, Oregon
Author:Fish, Peter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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