Since the start of the Spring term we’ve discussed the role of priestly orders including the monastic orders (Ex. Benedictine). In our discussions and readings on the Formation of Western Europe, we noticed the development of roles for women within The Church. This article helps unify both of these “Church-related”
Mixing Scripture Into the Batter
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — At first, the prep work for 200 four-pound cheesecakes in the sunny, commercial kitchen seemed familiar, unremarkable. An elderly woman in a bandanna wielded a cheese cutter, slicing through fat bricks of cream cheese. Another woman with silvery bangs poured heavy cream into the mixer, dipped a tasting pinkie into the batter and grinned. Rich vanilla perfumed the air. As containers from Florida were opened, bright bursts of Key lime scent escaped.
Familiar — and not. In this bakery, wall-mounted religious icons watched over the proceedings. Words on a poster speculated about how the Nativity would have been more efficient, nurturing and peaceful if Three Wise Women had been at the scene. Most strikingly, except for the clatter of aluminum spring-form pans being oiled by hand, the bakery was mostly quiet. When the nuns of New Skete bake, they pray.
“Scripture says, ‘Pray always,’ ” said Sister Cecelia Harvey, prioress of this monastery in rural upstate New York. She is a petite white-haired nun with an easy laugh and a wry sense of humor. “Can you not be aware of God while you’re putting cheese in a bowl and mixing things up?”
For at least 1,500 years, monastic orders have been producing fine foods and spirits to barter and sell. Today, monastic gourmet still pays the bills. In cupboards worldwide, the association of “Trappist” and “preserves” has become as commonplace as “Benedictine” and “brandy.” In December, the Belgian monks of the St. Sixtus abbey, who usually sell their prized dark beer, Westvleteren 12, at the monastery, permitted a one-time, wickedly expensive shipment (about $85 for a gift box of six bottles and two glasses), to cover costs of repairs, like a new roof.
In contrast to the solemnity of the monastic vow, the marketing of monastic food has become contemporary, even tongue-in-cheek. According to Will Keller, founder of monasterygreetings.com, a distributor who represents about 75 monasteries, popular items include Nun Better Cookies, baked by the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Cleveland, and Praylines made by the nuns at the St. Benedictine monastery in Canyon, Tex. Mystic Monk Coffee, roasted by the Carmelite monks of Cody, Wyo., even features a single-serving pod called a “monk shot.”
But as the population of many orders ages and dwindles, monastic kitchens face the challenge of maintaining their business while trying to protect the contemplative quality of their lives and the standards of their products.
That’s the battle joined by the Eastern Orthodox Nuns of New Skete, who bake, freeze and ship 13 flavors of cheesecake. The nuns have been self-supporting since 1969, when they left the Roman Catholic church to found their monastery. But now the seven nuns, including two who live in a nursing home, range in age from 61 to 90. How to persevere?
In the last year and a half, the nuns and the nearby Monks of New Skete, known for their German shepherd breeding programs and puppy training books, started sharing a business manager, marketing director and a technology expert for their online businesses. In 2012, over 10,000 cheesecakes were sold through their online store, gift shop, fund-raisers and wholesale distribution. Their bakery facility has the capacity to produce 400 cakes per baking session. Currently, the nuns, with five part-time assistants, bake one to two days a week, about 37 weeks of the year.
Last winter, the nuns introduced a new flavor, raspberry chocolate. They are developing a gluten-free cheesecake. They recently took over the making of cheese spreads from the monks, whose gift line now includes German shepherd plush toys and kitchen towels.
With the monks, they have a Facebook page and a Web site for their commercial products, and a second set for homilies and spiritual beliefs. “But I have the password,” Sister Cecelia said.
Some 35 years ago, the nuns were casting about for ways to remain solvent. They had cleaned houses in town, sewn sacramental vestments and helped the monks raise the dogs.
Then an abbot from their affiliated church, the Orthodox Church in America, suggested they try selling a specialty food — “not inexpensive, because even in an economic slump, people will want to treat themselves,” Sister Patricia Lawless said he advised them.
Sister Magdalene Oliver, who joined New Skete in 1975 and died in 2003, loved to bake. Her recipe still informs their basic cheesecake. The four-pounder, which serves 16, has lemon accents, is lined by pulverized vanilla cookie crumbs and retails for about $41. “You don’t put ‘plain’ on the label,” noted Sister Patricia. “Deluxe sounds better.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 11, 2013
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Orthodox Church in America as the Orthodox Church of America.