Since 2003, the monks at Subiaco Abbey have been making Monk Sauce—a homemade hot sauce made with habanero peppers grown at the monastery.
Every morning at 5:45 AM, the monks of Subiaco Abbey gather to pray together in an airy, white chapel below a massive gold crucifix bearing an emaciated, pained-looking Jesus. There are group prayers; then there are private prayers. At 6:30 AM, a community-wide mass begins, with more prayers.
Then, after hours of pensive thought and meditation, the monks head to their dining hall, where each table holds a bottle of fiery red Monk Sauce and a bottle of tangy green Monk Sauce, both made by the monks.
The tables also have all the old standbys—Tapatio, Tabasco, Cholula, and Sriracha, and a salsa made by a Mexican-American monk. There, they silently set their tongues aflame with hot sauce.
If the life of a monk is monotonous, their diet is not. Monks have long been responsible for making and keeping alive some of the world's most exciting food traditions—monks were the first ones to process chocolate in Spain, Trappist monks have created some of Europe's finest beers, and even Dom Pérignon wine was originally made by a Benedictine monk. In Subiaco, Arkansas, the monks make hot sauce.
Subiaco Abbey has existed since 1878—relatively young compared to the medieval monasteries of Europe, but no less traditional. It's a Benedictine monastery, a sect that's long espoused traditions of growing, cooking, and eating food together.
"Food plays an important part in monastic living," said Charlie Kremer, Subiaco Director of Food Services. "There is an emphasis on health and wellness for the monks and the challenge to our kitchen is to provide healthy and nutritious meals that are also appealing to about 40 people."
The monastic diet is also disciplined: There is no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, when the brothers also have a noontime meal called a "fast day meal," made of beans and cornbread, or soup and rice, which saves the brothers money that they give to charity. To keep the humble meals from being bland, Kremers aims to serve things like pho and kimchi, and the addition of hot sauce—in particular, the two varieties made on the premises—gives the monks of Subiaco an opportunity to indulge and individualize their spice profiles.
The monks started making their own hot sauce in 2003, when Father Richard Walz, now head of the food production team, was stationed in Belize. He learned to make habanero hot sauce from the recipes of local cooks and when he returned to Subiaco, he brought his precious project back with him. The monks planted the Belizean habanero seeds in the Subiaco garden and built a greenhouse to grow tropical crops like pineapples, papayas, bananas, ginger, and lemongrass.
"More so than food itself, I like working with plants," Walz told me. "It's perfectly monastic to be concerned about the environment and work with gardens."
During that first harvest, the monks made 140 gallons of the sauce. They mostly gave it away to friends, but they had so much that they decided to sell it, on behalf of the monastery. In the summer of 2004, they sold 3,500 bottles of Monk Sauce. They opened an online business called Country Monks, made deals with local restaurants and farmers markets, and eventually created a second sauce—a green version, picked just before the habaneros reddened.
Now, the monks shrug off their habits in favor of jeans and plant between 300 and 600 habaneros each year, yielding a harvest between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of peppers.
There is, it seems, only one activity that's more important to the monks.
"If the bell rings for prayer, you stop whether you're finished with work or not," said Brother Reginald Udouj. "For us, there is monastic leisure, and there is balance in life. The prayer is our primary job, and everything else is secondary."
"You're up to your elbows [in peppers] and tingling. I'd get to prayer and I'd be rubbing my eyes and crying all throughout prayer." — Brother Reginald Udouj
Udouj had been a furniture salesman before coming to Subiaco to work in the chili garden, where he now spends most of his non-praying time between February and October. He helps plant, water, weed, pick, clean, pack, and freeze the habaneros. After his first harvest, he learned to wear gloves.
"You're up to your elbows and tingling. I'd get to prayer and I'd be rubbing my eyes and crying all throughout prayer," he said. "The old monks would say, 'Oh, look at Udouj, he's so devout in prayer, he's crying.'"
Meanwhile, his tongue has also adapted to tolerate Monk Sauce, which clocks in at 250,000 Scoville units—significantly hotter than a Korean chili pepper or a jalapeño, but gentler than a Carolina Reaper or a ghost chili.
It's sweetened by carrots they grow themselves, rendering a fine balance of hot, sweet, and fruity. Approximately 12 to 14 peppers go into each bottle. "Others have suggested that we market a 'mild' version of our sauce," Walz said. "I countered by saying that there is no such thing as a mild habanero pepper."
The monks file into the refectory for dinner every night in silence, standing in a line to read the evening's ordained scripture and Subiaco's particular version of an ordo, a church calendar that denotes feasts, martyrs' deaths, and honored bishops. Then they proceed to their tables, where the monks eat in silence—no matter how spicy.
"Going back throughout the millennia, time shared at the table was a special time, a time for shared prayer and shared reflection," said Udouj. "The Rule of Saint Benedict gives special detail for this time." It's a time for togetherness, spiritual reflection, and also discipline—to silently eat and pray, while their mouths are on fire.
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