By Kevin T. Di Camillo
Due to my last name I’m occasionally asked the following (in order of frequency): “Are you related to Kate DiCamillo?” [the award-winning children’s book author]:
I am not.
“Are you related to Brandon DiCamillo?” [the extreme-sport “actor” from MTV’s Jackass]:
I am not (mercifully).
“Are you related to the people at Di Camillo Bakery?”
Proudly I am.
In the early 1980s, once the economy got going again, gourmet food was being rediscovered (or more simply “discovered”) — this time not by plutocrats hovering over three-martini lunches at the Four Seasons, but by yuppies and foodies who’d grown up on Wonder Bread and bologna — and had a hankering for something better, more substantial; something ethnic, upscale, and simply better tasting. In short, there was a new call for real food.
Two sisters, Allison and Margaret Engel captured the zeitgeist of this rage for gourmet food in their book Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People who Produce Them (Harper & Row, 1984). On the book’s cover appear three generations of my own family, all of whom have some connection to the bakery, whether as owners, bakers proper, or office personnel.
However, what struck me at the time (and again now) is the number of religious orders, societies, and congregations who made it into the book, who support themselves by baking or making gourmet foodstuffs. So I thought I’d take a look back at them and see where they were then — and what they are up to now. They appear below in the order in which the book presents them.
The Abbey of the Genesee Monk’s Bread
From personal experience — we often stop by this Trappist abbey en route from New Jersey to my hometown of Niagara Falls, New York — I can say the monks have expanded their baking to include a wider variety of breads. My personal favorite is “Genesee Rye,” but they also make an outstanding raisin bread and sunflower-seed loaf, too. Another development: There is now an actual cash register (in the old days the “honor system” was used), and they also make biscotti and fudge. In other good news, the vocation director, Br. Anthony Maria Weber, OCSO, notes that they’ve seen an uptick in vocations to their monastery too!
St. John’s Dark Bread
The Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey — a stunning and striking structure created by noted architect Marcel Breuer — are still making (though no longer shipping) their “Johnnie Bread,” a hefty 2-pound dark loaf of cracked wheat and rye. According to Br. Niebauer, OSB, they “offer a bread mix for home bakers as well.”
Monastery of the Holy Spirit Bread
These Trappist monks started with bread but have now abandoned bread baking to concentrate on making biscotti, fudge, and fruitcake in their abbey located in Conyers, Georgia. According to Br. Callistis, OCSO, they have seen more and more “nontraditional vocations” to their order.
Immaculate Heart Hermitage Fruitcakes
The one and only American Camaldolese monastery still makes their fruitcakes while looking out at stunning Big Sur, California. Since the salad days of Food Finds, they have added their own granola — and in a nice nod to their fellow religious of other orders, they now carry Mystic Monk Coffee (from the Carmelites of Wyoming) and Brigittine Fudge (see later in this article). (Currently, the monks are unable to ship because of storm damage to local roads. You can still support the monks by making a donation at GoFundMe.com/NewCamaldoliRelief.)
Holy Cross Abbey Monastery Bread and Fruitcake
As the cliché goes: “The more things change … .” These Trappist monks still do make their fruitcakes but no longer make their bread. If you want to taste their wares, get ready for a pilgrimage to Berryville, Virginia. Or at least visit them online.
Nuns of New Skete Cheesecake
Though cheesecake is what attracted the Food Finds editors, the New Skete community also produces cheese spreads, a pancake mix, and fruitcake. Note: This is the only Orthodox community to make it into this volume — and they are still located in Cambridge, New York.
Mount Saint Mary’s Butternut Munch
Mount Saint Mary’s, about 40 miles southwest of Boston, is the motherhouse of Our Lady of the Mississippi (see later in this article), but these Cistercian nuns have made their mark with something called “butternut munch,” which they have made since 1957. According to their website, it’s “chocolate covered toffee sprinkled with nuts.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe Fruitcake and Date Cake
Yet another Trappist monastery, founded about the same time as the Abbey of the Genesee (mid 1950s), this one is in Oregon and still specializes in fruitcake and date cake. Per Br. Richard Layton, OCSO: “Vocations are slow in coming, but in keeping with the general times of the Church, we’ve had some serious candidates who are a bit older than those who used to discern a vocation at a younger age.”
Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Honeys
Though these Trappists are still in Utah, they no
longer make their honey or their bread. However, they do offer a recipe for their bread here:
Sisters of the Holy Family Fruitcake
These New Orleans sisters continue to offer their inimitable fruitcake starting in mid-October “until the supply is exhausted.” They have also added cookies to their seasonal menu. According to Sr. Ann Michelle, SSF, they experienced a downturn in vocations for several long stretches since 1984 (the year Food Finds was published), but more recently they’ve “had one to two women a year at least inquire, if not enter” their order.
Brigittine Monks Fudge
Part of the fascination with the book Food Finds was that the authors literally traveled all over the country (this was a solid decade before the internet was around) and personally visited all the chefs, cooks, bakers, and fishmongers included in their tome. In addition, the book was rife with black-and-white photos. Perhaps the most intriguing (at least for a 14-year-old Catholic boy like me) was a picture with the caption: “The Brigittine Monks outside ‘Camelot,’ the mansion where they live rent-free,” which showed a solemn, hooded horde walking toward their palatial estate in California.
Times do change, and according to Br. Steven, the Brigittines are no longer in Camelot in California (they moved in 1986). However, they are now located in Oregon under the title “Priory of Our Lady of Consolation, Order of the Most Holy Savior” and are still making their fudge — and they have added an array of chocolate truffles to their menu.
Our Lady of The Mississippi Abbey Caramels
In Food Finds this section concludes with the words of Sr. Thomas, O. Cist.: “It is not a business. We don’t want it to grow so much that it interferes with our life of prayer and solitude.” And though the Cistercian nuns have added maple syrup and caramel topping to their repertoire, they’ve maintained a discrete distance between themselves and the sales of their handmade products. Still located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, there are some great views at their website.
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Smoked Meats
Few things last forever. While this Benedictine archabbey is still alive and well in southern Indiana, they no longer make the smoked meats that landed them in Food Finds.
A lot has happened in the past 30-plus years in the world of food (the Food Network, celebrity chef shows, a clutch of reality-television food programs) and in religious orders too. I’m glad that my family was privileged to be published in Food Finds and that all of the orders in the original edition of this unique book are still praying — if not baking.
Information is subject to change.