How a solitary monk, whose soups are known the world over, united a community

Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lies in bed at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, NY (Photos by Angus Mordant for The Washington Post)
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lies in bed at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, NY (Photos by Angus Mordant for The Washington Post) (for The Washington Post)

As dusk began to fall on January 10, 2001, Ray Patchey just wanted to go home with his family for his birthday dinner.

A lineman at Verizon, Patchey had been sent to repair phone lines following a snowstorm in rural Dutchess County, New York. Cold to the bone, Patchey and another technician were packing up to leave when the door to the nearby farm opened and a voice shouted, “Don’t go, I’ve got you. made soup!”

Looking up, Patchey saw a Benedictine monk, dressed in traditional clothes and sandals, standing in the doorway, and thought, “How can I say no?

Little did he know that the monk was a best-selling cookbook author with legions of fans around the world. This bowl of soup, like so many others that Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette shared with friends and strangers over several decades as he lived almost alone in the monastery of Notre-Dame-de-la -Resurrection, was only the beginning.

Now 82, Brother Victor is the author of some 18 books, half of which are cookbooks that have collectively sold in the millions and have been translated into several languages, including French, Japanese and Japanese. Dutch. Born in Lées-Athas, a village in the Pyrenees in southwestern France, Brother Victor grew up eating food cooked with the seasons, now saying, “There’s nothing like French cuisine, and everyone I knew cooked well — my mother, my grandmother. Everything we ate, vegetables, cheese, bread, was fresh and local.

Prepare Brother Victor’s Monastic Garlic Soup Recipe

But one day, when young Victor was 16, he walked down the road to the local monastery in pursuit of a more contemplative life. During the reign of Saint Benedict, the emphasis on cultivating a self-reliant community required the brothers to take care of all the needs of the monastery, including growing most of their own food and cooking communal meals. Brother Victor began serving as an assistant cook in the kitchen, where soup was a common part of every meal.

It’s no coincidence, then, that almost everyone’s memory of Brother Victor seems to include sitting around the kitchen table with a bowl. Today, Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery sits quietly among trees and fields, filled with memories of those times of communion.

It was this loneliness that first attracted Elise Boulding to the monastery in the early 1970s. A renowned peace activist, Boulding had been intrigued by monastic life for many years and, on her first spiritual retreat, was struck by the how, as she would later write, “the monasteries have kitchens and the monks must cook”. Eventually, she approached brother Victor, who had come to the United States in 1966 to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University before resuming a cloistered existence in the Hudson Valley, to write a cookbook. The result was “From a Monastery Kitchen” in 1976, a 127-page collection of mostly vegetarian recipes, as monastic life generally prohibits the eating of four-legged animals.

This first edition reads, in many ways, like a typical community cookbook, a hodgepodge of quotes, images and collected recipes, ranging from Brother Victor’s French-inspired lentil soufflé to a loaf of Yeast Christmas calling 2½ pounds of raisins. In the introduction, Boulding, who died in 2010, wrote that the book was “intended to symbolically open the door to the monastery for those who may never come here but would like to evoke the peace of the monastery in their own kitchens. .” As her son Bill says, “Building community drove everything she did.”

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Indeed, Boulding clearly recognized that other people would also be drawn to the idea of ​​preparing and sharing simple, seasonal meals, creating their own culinary oasis in the storm of everyday life. It was his only foray into the world of cookbook writing, but it opened a door for Brother Victor, who set out to revise a new edition of the book a decade later. The result, released in 1989, is clean and elegant, featuring a single recipe and wood-engraved image per page, underscoring its lucid understanding of what constitutes a good cookbook: an evocative theme, a distinct progression of recipes, and an invitation to the reader. collaborate.

Monks and nuns often need an entrepreneurial spirit to keep their community afloat, and Brother Victor was no exception. “Brother Victor is a deeply spiritual and beautiful soul,” says Richard Rothschild, a book editor who helped produce three cookbooks with him in 2010. “He’s also deeply business-minded.”

Ann Shershin, a resident of Poughkeepsie, NY, who began volunteering at the monastery in 2007 when her son was doing an Eagle Scout project there, saw Brother Victor’s marketing prowess first hand, especially when she began to help her organize an annual festival promoting her locally famous. homemade vinegars the following year. “Brother Victor had done a vinegar sale the previous summers,” says Shershin, “but it was a real festival, with other vendors also coming to sell their wares. Cars lined up to get in. Patchey had also learned the art of vinegar making from Brother Victor, volunteering his time to help increase production. At its height, the festival brought in as much as $12,000 – a small fortune for a self-sufficient monastery.

The vinegar trade brought with it a certain notoriety. New York chefs bought the vinegars for their restaurants; there have been television appearances and even a particularly striking photograph by Italian photographer Francesco Mastalia for his 2014 book, “Organic.” Curator Gail Buckland wrote of the photograph: “The book opens with Brother Victor-Antoine gazing up into the heavens, allowing sacred light to fall upon him…a bottle of his precious vinegar in one hand, a hoe in the other. The vinegar, says Cheryl Rogowski, a second-generation farmer in Pine Island, NY, was truly special, made with a mother – the compound of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria that ferments alcohol into vinegar – that Brother Victor had brought from his family home in France decades earlier. “Each bottle traces its roots to its own heritage,” she says. “It’s incredible.”

Add flavor and save money by infusing your own vinegar, alcohol and more.

It was around the same time that Baltimore filmmaker Alex Levy, then a senior at Vassar College, began filming “An Instrument of Peace,” a documentary about Brother Victor and his life at the monastery. Brother Victor had hosted Vassar student interns for several years; When Levy started visiting the monastery to help weed the gardens and do odd jobs, he was intrigued. “It was a setting that seemed out of time,” he recalls. “I was interested in finding out how this person went from a solitary hermit to becoming the center of a community.”

For Michael Centore, another Vassar alumnus and friend of both Levy and Brother Victor, the film’s opening scene offers a glimpse of the monk’s ability to connect with people in meaningful ways as he follows him picking up produce from a local grocery store. shop. “He would use this food for his animals or to feed others, and he would talk to everyone who worked in the back room of the grocery store, in different languages ​​depending on where they came from,” Centore explains. “I think those are the times I remember him the happiest.”

What no one expected was that in 2014, a healthy brother Victor would suddenly suffer a debilitating stroke. It was just two weeks after a successful Vinegar Festival, when Shershin recalls thinking, “We could do this festival for years, Brother Victor is in such good shape. Levy’s film narrative suddenly shifted from documenting a thriving self-made ecosystem to a struggling business. “I didn’t want to do this story,” Levy says. “It was very difficult to watch someone lose their game.”

It has now been nearly two years since Brother Victor took up residence in a retirement home near Rhinebeck, after a slow recovery from a stroke made it difficult for him to continue living at the monastery, even with help. full time. Patchey and other friends and neighbors watch over the monastery itself, though Brother Victor’s beloved sheep, chickens, and other animals had to be rehoused to live out their lives at nearby shrines and farms.

On a recent visit to the monastery, now closed to the public, the afternoon sun slanted through the kitchen windows, casting long shadows on the floorboards and illuminating dusty shelves stacked with books, jars of preserves and random pieces of crockery. Patchey looked at the table by the window. “We were sitting right there, with the dog curled up at our feet and the cats prowling over it, with bowls of soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden, bits of bread from the night before and glasses of wine,” he said.

Now Patchey plays the lottery twice a week, hoping for a payout that will help restore the monastery and its beloved gardens, shrine and kitchen to their former glory. Brother Victor, on the other hand, clings to his belief that an active life can resume at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Résurrection monastery — the pungent smell of fermenting vinegar, the hot steam rising from the soup bubbling on the stove, the cadence of the prayers being sung in the silence of the chapel.

“When you have faith,” he said, “miracles still happen.”

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