Meet the monks who sell 30,000 fruitcakes a year

Fruitcake on a decorative holiday plate
Image: LauriPatterson (Getty Images)

All’s quiet in Ava, Missouri. The Ozark Mountain town has a population of just under 3,000, and searching for it on Google Maps yields a picture of an unoccupied bench overlooking a small public pool. But locals have a delicious secret—a secret that’s doused in rum, weighs roughly two pounds, and delights 30,000 patrons around the globe every year. The secret is fruitcake, and it’s the lifeblood of an industrious group of 12 monks at Assumption Abbey, a secluded monastery almost entirely funded by sales of the much-maligned baked good.

Assumption Abbey was originally established in 1950 by a group of Trappist monks, a subset of the Cistercian family. Trappist history stretches back a good 1,600 years, with the original Cistercians branching off of Benedictine tradition when Benedictine life became too extravagant. In the 1600s, a group of reformers gave the Cistercians the same treatment, branching off in favor of an even stricter existence. Those monks were the original Trappists. Now, Trappists are known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance because of their dedication to the centuries-old Rule of St. Benedict—a rule that calls for “simplicity, silence, and separation from dominant culture.” The rule also calls for self-sufficiency. Enter the fruitcake business, which funds the vast majority of the abbey’s holy works.

According to the abbey’s website, the operation began when the abbey’s founders turned to world-class chef Jean-Pierre Augé, who at one time served in the royal employ of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Augé taught the monks to make fruitcakes, an age-old tradition the Trappists then turned into a masterful economic enterprise. Today, the Monastery sells about 30,000 cakes a year. Assumption Abbey fruitcakes are shipped from the tiny town of Ava to customers all over the world, and they’re even featured in the Williams-Sonoma Holiday Catalogue.

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These are iconic cakes, and for good reason. Assumption Abbey Fruitcakes are rich and moist, the product of slow, slow baking—the kind of patience that only a monk could cultivate. You see, it takes months to create a single fruitcake. The candied and dried fruit is soaked for two weeks in four gallons of Burgundy wine; then, it’s combined with flour, eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, walnuts, vanilla, and cinnamon. At that point, the batter is then placed in round cake pans, which are baked on trays. Then, the monks wait: each cake is required to age for at least two months.

“There’s some magic that happens [during aging],” says Michael Hampton, Assumption Abbey Bakery’s business manager and one of the only secular community members who regularly interacts with the monks. “The rum mellows, the flavors meld together. There’s a notable difference in flavor. There is a difference in quality like a fine wine or a cheese.” And now, a bit of math: since most of the abbey’s cakes are ordered for the holiday months, the cake you receive in December was likely prepared in September or October. That’s not a bad thing; the cakes in general keep extremely well, with a two-year shelf life before they start to dry out. And if you order too late, you’re liable to get a backordered cake, which might be baked in December and shipped out in early February when the abbey’s annual baking hiatus ends.

It’s a complex operation, and it hinges entirely on the monks. They complete each and every step of the process, from marinating the fruit to packing and mailing the finished product. It’s a lot of work for 12 men of the cloth, especially since the members of the abbey’s founding Trappist order are getting older. At this point, only three Trappists remain: Father Cyprian, the abbey’s oldest Trappist who is in his nineties; Brother Frances, who is 80; and Father Alberic, who is in his sixties.

The rest of the monks are Cistercians, members of the Trappist movement’s slightly more liberal predecessor. The Cistercians hail from Assumption’s brother monastery in Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks vary in age from their late twenties to sixties, and they’ve essentially taken over the abbey to ensure the operation continues after the last Trappist passes away. Perhaps surprisingly, the Vietnamese newcomers are equally passionate about the fruitcake game. “Fruitcake isn’t something that’s necessarily a popular thing in Vietnam, at least not in the traditional sense,” Hampton says. “We also found that the Vietnamese monks didn’t have much of a taste for sugar.” Still, the power of the holy fruitcake compelled them—not only have the Vietnamese monks taken over bakery operations, they’ve also created a strong Vietnamese customer base for the abbey. Now, Hampton estimates that cakes shipped to Vietnam make up roughly two or three percent of sales every year.

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Although Hampton keeps a close eye on the books, Assumption Abbey’s website specifies that the fruitcakes are “not a commercial enterprise.” For the monks of Assumption Abbey, fruitcakes are, in fact, a way of life, despite the fact that people simply love to hate fruitcake. It’s been that way since mass-produced mail-order fruitcakes made their boozy debut in 1913. Seven decades later, Johnny Carson called it “the worst Christmas gift” in 1985, supposedly sealing the dessert’s fate as a seasonal horror. Fruitcake even made an appearance in Deadspin’s 2012 Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Holiday Catalog, with then-columnist Drew Magary ripping into the cake’s humble origins—origins that I, a product of the Ozark Mountains, proudly share:

There are trappist monks in the Ozarks? Do they brew artisanal meth? I don’t trust fruitcake to begin with. I sure as shit am not trusting fruitcake that comes from a redneck friar. They’ll swap out uppers for candied fruit.

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My hometown is an hour from Ava, so Magary’s assessment stings a bit. It’s easy to play into tired hillbilly stereotypes, but isn’t it far more interesting to wax poetic about the Assumption Abbey cakes’ months-long preparation? Why joke about artisanal meth when you can dig into a centuries-old dessert recipe that’s steeped in tradition, monastic fastidiousness, and buckets of alcohol?

Either way, Hampton will be the first to admit that fruitcake has a troublesome reputation. “I didn’t think I liked fruitcake,” he tells me sheepishly. In fact, he didn’t even try it during his first year at the abbey. And when he eventually worked up the nerve to try a bite? Well, you might say he saw God. “The combination of the fruits—they all marry together in a way that’s unlike any other fruitcake I’ve tried,” he says. “It’s very creamy, very fruity, and very moist.”

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The monks weren’t surprised by Hampton’s assessment. Once again, these are iconic cakes, and the monks know it. “We try to keep first things first by remembering that our essential vocation is to seek God truly as monks,” says Father Cyprian. “In his Rule for Monasteries, St. Benedict tells us to do everything for the glory of God, so we try to make good quality products.” Emphasis on the quality. The monks don’t care about deconstructing the cake or turning it into a foam or exploring any of the other trendy ways people bastardize age-old recipes. Instead, the monks lean into faith. Faith that their recipe works every time, faith in their lifestyle of contemplation and study. Faith that God will continue to provide, even in a horrifying year.

I’ll admit that I’m envious of the monks’ undying faith. In researching the arduous craftsmanship behind each and every cake, I couldn’t kick a feeling of dread. The issue at hand: can tiny operations like Assumption Abbey survive after a year in which many other food enterprises have met their untimely end?

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Fortunately, my Doubting Thomas tendencies were met with what strikes me as a holiday miracle. The abbey isn’t just staying afloat—it’s selling record-breaking numbers of fruitcakes. “This year has been a very good year for us,” Hampton says, explaining that the abbey is on track to sell out of fruitcakes by mid-December. According to Hampton, part of that has to do with unusual sales during fruitcake off-season: spring and summer. “We don’t usually sell a lot of cakes during that time, but our sales were actually up,” he says. Hampton attributes the unseasonable fruitcake boom to people spending more time at home, trawling the internet for new and unusual ways to spend their money. And if there’s anything that’ll shake up a Groundhog Day–style quarantine, it’s a two-pound fruitcake.

As for supply chain issues, there’s only been one so far. “We did seem to have a bit of a butter and egg shortage when the pandemic started and everybody was making a run on the grocery stores,” Hampton says. “We ended up having to go to the local grocery store and just buy them out of butter, because supplies were limited with our delivery service.” As much as I enjoy the visual of monks making a run on the grocery store and wrenching butter out of shoppers’ hands, Hampton assures me that he was the one who went to the grocery store, and the excursions weren’t dramatic in the slightest.

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Are the monks of Assumption Abbey uniquely blessed by a fruitcake-loving almighty? Your guess is as good as mine. Raised Evangelical, my dubious faith now mostly involves asking an unseen God to keep my transatlantic flight in the air until I’ve lived long enough to see how I look with a platinum blonde shag. But like I said, I can’t help but envy the monks’ steadfastness—and if anything, the whole operation is awfully poetic.

Neither Trappists nor Cistercians take vows of silence, but as contemplative monks, many are encouraged to speak only when necessary. For that reason, I wasn’t allowed to speak directly with the founding monks. Instead, Hampton served as middleman, passing my emailed questions on to 90-something Father Cyprian, who wrote out his replies in a curly cursive script. “It seems to be an appropriate addition to the tradition of fruitcakes at Christmas when monks are the bakers,” Father Cyprian wrote. He went on to explain that, after the morning’s fruitcakes have been decorated, it’s time for the daily blessing. At that point, the brothers gather around the unpackaged cakes with laminated prayer sheets. They utter the following 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.”

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For some of the monks, the blessing might be the only words they utter aloud all day. But, as mentioned earlier, there’s no limit on written correspondence. I’ll admit that, given the unique opportunity to communicate with Father Cyprian, I felt divinely prompted to ask The Takeout’s requisite query: Is a hot dog a sandwich? His reply was generous, to say the least. “It is fair play to answer a question with a question. Does a hot dog have a portion of meat between two slices of bread?” Fair play, indeed. I suppose I should’ve expected no less from a 90-something monk with thousands of fruitcakes under his blessed belt. But if researching Assumption Abbey’s splendid tradition has taught me anything, it’s to never underestimate the power of a dozen monks armed with gallons of rum.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

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DISCUSSION

I just ordered one as a what-the-hell since this seems like a nice operation to support for just $35. Christmas Eve’s dessert is now bought and for a lovely cause.

Also, any fruit soaked in liqueur and baked into a cake? YES PLEASE.