How a solitary monk, famous for his soups, united a community

Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lying on his bed at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. (Photo by Angus Modante for The Washington Post)
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, a Benedictine monk and cookbook author, lying on his bed at Ferncliff Sanatorium in Rhinebeck, New York (photo by Angus Modante for The Washington Post) (for Washington Post) Photographed by The Post)

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

A Verizon linebacker, Patch, was dispatched to fix phone lines after a snowstorm in rural Dutchess County, New York. Patch and another technician were about to leave when the door of a nearby farmhouse opened when the door of the nearby farmhouse opened. He shouted, “Don’t go, I made soup for you!”

Looking up, Patch sees a Benedictine monk, wearing traditional habits and sandals, standing in the doorway, thinking, “How can I say no?”

Little did he know that the monk was a best-selling cookbook author with many fans around the world. That soup, like so many others that Brother Victor Antoine Davila La Tourette has shared with friends and strangers over the decades, spent most of his time alone in the convent of Our Lady of the Resurrection, which Just a start.

Brother Victor, 82, is the author of 18 books, half of which are cookbooks, which have sold in the millions and have been translated into several languages, including French, Japanese and Dutch. Born in Lées-Athas, a village in the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France, Brother Victor grew up eating food cooked to the rhythm of the seasons, and now he says: “There is nothing like the French way of cooking, I know Everyone here is doing great – my mother, my grandmother. Everything we eat, vegetables, cheese, bread, is fresh and local.”

But one day, when the young Victor was 16, he followed the road to the local monastery in pursuit of a more contemplative life. Under St. Benedict, there was a strong emphasis on cultivating self-sufficient communities, requiring brothers to take care of all the needs of the monastery, including growing most of their own food and cooking communal meals. Brother Victor started working as an assistant cook in the kitchen, eating soup with every meal.

So it’s no accident that almost everyone’s memory of Brother Victor seems to include sitting at the dinner table with a bowl of it. Today, the Temple of the Resurrection of Our Lady sits quietly among the woods and fields, filled with memories of those Holy Communion moments.

It was this loneliness that first drew Elise Boulding to the abbey in the early 1970s. Boulding, a well-known peace activist who had been interested in monastic life for many years, in her first spiritual retreat, she later wrote, “The monastery has a kitchen, and the monks have to cook,” which made She was shocked. Eventually, she found Brother Victor, who had come to the United States in 1966 to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University before resuming a life of seclusion in the Hudson Valley about writing a cookbook. The result was 1976’s “From the Abbey’s Kitchen,” a 127-page collection of mostly vegetarian recipes, as monastic life generally forbade eating quadrupeds.

The first edition reads like a quintessential community cookbook in many ways, with a hodgepodge of quotes, images, and a collection of recipes, from Victor Brothers’ French-inspired Lentil Soufflé to a sourdough Christmas bread that calls for 2.5 pounds of raisins. In the introduction, Boulding, who died in 2010, wrote that the book “aims to open the doors of the monastery in a symbolic way to those who may never come here but want to evoke the serenity of the monastery in their kitchens. .” As her son Bill puts it, “Creating community motivates everything she does.”

In fact, Boulding has clearly recognized that others are equally drawn to the idea of ​​preparing and sharing simple seasonal meals, creating their own culinary oasis amid the storm of everyday life. It was her only foray into cookbook writing, but it opened the door for Brother Victor, who began revising a new edition of the book ten years later. The result, published in 1989, is concise and elegant, presenting one recipe and woodcut image per page, highlighting his clear understanding of what constitutes a good cookbook: an evocative theme, a unique recipe progression and an invitation to readers Cooperation.

Monks and nuns often needed entrepreneurship to sustain their communities, and Brother Victor was no exception. In 2010, book packer Richard Rothschild, who produced three cookbooks with him, said: “Brother Victor was a very spirited and beautiful soul. He was also very business-minded.”

Ann Shershin, a resident of Poughkeepsie, NY, saw Brother Victor’s marketing up close Ability, especially when she started helping him organize an annual festival promoting his famous local homemade vinegar the following year. “The Victor Brothers did vinegar sales the previous summer,” Scherzing said, “but it’s a real festival, and other vendors come and sell their products. Cars are lining up to get in.” Patchey has also been telling Victor The brothers learned the art of making vinegar and volunteered their time to help increase production. In its heyday, the festival brought in as much as $12,000—no small fortune for a self-sufficient monastery.

The vinegar business brought a certain fame. Chefs in New York City bought vinegar for their restaurants; Italian photographer Francesco Mastalia captured a particularly striking image for his 2014 book Organic. Curator Gail Buckland wrote: “The book begins with Brother Victor-Antoine looking up to the sky and letting the Holy Light fall on him…with his precious vinegar in one hand, and the other in the other. Take the hoe.” Cheryl Rogowski, a second-generation farmer in Pine Island, New York, said the vinegar was really special, made by a mother that Brother Victor brought from home. – A compound of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria that ferment alcohol into vinegar. France decades ago. “The roots of each bottle can be traced back to his own heritage,” she said. “It’s exciting.”

Around the same time, Baltimore filmmaker Alex Levy, then a senior at Vassar College, began filming “Instruments of Peace,” a film about Victor. A documentary on the brother and his life in the monastery. Brother Victor has hosted interns from Vaasa over the years. When Levy started visiting the monastery to help weed the garden and do odd jobs, he was intrigued. “It was an environment that felt like it was out of time,” he recalls. “I’m curious to see how this person went from being a lonely recluse to being the center of a community.”

Michael Centore, a Vassar alum and friend of brothers Levy and Victor, the film’s opening scene gives him a glimpse into the monk’s ability to connect with people in meaningful ways as it follows him from local groceries. Shop to pick up abandoned produce shops. “He would use those foods for his animals or feed other people, and he would chat with everyone who was working backstage at the grocery store, in different languages ​​depending on where they came from,” Centore said. “I think that’s when I remember him the happiest.”

Unexpectedly, in 2014, the able-bodied brother Victor suddenly suffered a stroke and became weak. Just two weeks after a successful vinegar festival, Shershin remembers thinking, “We can do this festival for years, and Brother Victor is in great shape.” The Levy film’s narrative suddenly shifts from documenting a thriving self-made The ecosystem turned into a struggling business. “I didn’t want to make that story,” Levy said. “It’s hard to see someone knocking out their game.”

Brother Victor spent nearly two years in a nursing home near Rheinbeck, where his slow recovery from a stroke made it difficult for him to continue living in the monastery even with full-time help. Patchey and other friends and neighbors have kept watch over the monastery itself, even though sheep, chickens and other animals worshipped by the Victor brothers must be relocated before they can live out their lives on nearby reserves and farms.

On a recent visit to the monastery, now closed to the public, the afternoon sun slanted in through the kitchen window, casting long shadows on the floor and illuminating a dusty pile of books, canned preserves and random crockery shelf. Patch looked at the table by the window. “We used to sit there with dogs huddled at our feet and cats roaming about, bowls of soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden, a big piece of bread that had been sitting for a day and a few glasses of wine,” he said. Say.

Patchey now plays the lottery twice a week in hopes of a prize that will help bring the monastery and its beloved gardens, sanctuary and kitchen back to glory. Brother Victor, on the other hand, insists on his belief that active life can be restored at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Resurrection – the strong smell of fermented vinegar, the warm steam escaping from the soup bubbling on the stove, the rhythm of prayer in the church’s Sing in silence.

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

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