Baking with Brother Rick

I never met Brother Rick Curry, and he passed away too soon at the age of 72 in December of 2015. However, all that being the case, I feel like I’ve actually gotten to know Br. Rick pretty well over the last few weeks. You see, we spent Advent and Christmas baking together, and you can get to know a person in a rather unique and special way when you spend some time together in the kitchen. The holidays are often when families get together in the kitchen and pass recipes down through the generations. For many, this is a huge reason that that the holidays become such a treasured time. It’s also likely what gives rise to the term “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But through the stress and the snacks and the recipes gone wrong (and hopefully the recipes that we get right), relationships are steeped in the sights and smells and tastes of a busy oven and a bubbling stovetop.

Those of you who are regular listeners to the podcast might remember that my Catholic New Year’s resolution was to work my way through Br. Rick’s Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking. The recipe book is organized by liturgical season, so I decided to tackle it straight-up “Julie & Julia” style. This means that I was jumping into the deep end with 11 breads to prepare during a shortened Advent season, what with Christmas falling on a Tuesday this year. After that, there was barely time to come up for air before getting after another 7 breads during the 12 days of Christmas. So now, with the clock ticking away the final minutes of the official Christmas season (I’m writing this just before midnight on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – a ridiculous end to the “Christmas” season in my opinion, as I mentioned in this week’s podcast!), I find myself reflecting on my holiday season with Br. Rick.

When Dizzy first gave me Br. Rick’s big book of bready Jesuit secrets, I did what I normally do with a new recipe book – I thumbed through it and marked a few potential favorites to try. Then, when I was ready, I tried them out. While the breads were all tasty, I found myself drawn to the short reflections that Br. Rick offered across the book’s pages. This is how the seed was planted to work through the book page-by-page. It made sense to start with Advent, as this is where the book starts, where the new liturgical year begins, and when bakers around the world really roll up their sleeves to start knocking out seasonal treats. This was, perhaps, a tactical error, since Br. Rick I’m sure did not intend to have a puddle-faced amateur baker such as myself trying to prepare every single one of his sweet, fruity seasonal breads from this section in one short burst of semi-suicidal baking (and eating) bonanza, let alone following that up with another mad dash through the Christmas breads listed later in the book! Even though I allowed myself to bounce around within a particular section of the recipe book, somewhere around December 20th I had to admit to myself, covered in a fine patina of flour and with enough dough crammed beneath my finger nails to provide hard tack for the entire Spanish armada, that perhaps I was reading a choose-your-own-adventure book with stubborn page-by-page bull-headedness. Still, a resolution is a resolution, and so I powered through.

And what have I learned about Br. Rick along the way? Well, for one thing, the man loves raisins. I mean, like, he looooooooves raisins. Which makes sense. Raisins are perhaps the humblest form of adding sweetness to any dish, and thus perfect for adding a modest smile into the Advent preparations that I imagine would take place in a monastery or Jesuit residence. Br. Rick’s recipes are collected from Jesuit communities around the world, and a common theme in his reflections included in the book are how the breads prepared during Advent and Christmas help novices to feel like their new Jesuit brothers are their family, and the community they share has become their new home. Still, though, I should have bought stock in Sun-Maid before embarking on this experience of baking with Br. Rick. At one point, Mrs. Ges was putting together a shopping list, and I asked her to add raisins…again. I managed to dodge the daggers that shot out of her eyes, but the stern “no” that she sent my way hit home. It was time to switch to currants. And you know what? The bread was even better. Raisins are great and all, but currants bring a whole new kind of thunder to the loaf. So chalk it up as one of the first things that I have learned about myself in this whole experience – that I am currently miles away from being ready to enter into the monastic life because I can’t make it more than a week or two without giving up even the slightest indulgence, such as, you know, fucking currants!

I’ve learned a lot more by spending some time in the kitchen with Br. Rick. I’ve certainly learned some new techniques in the kitchen, and I’ve noticed that the stuff that I tend to identify as decidedly “old school” – techniques or combinations of ingredients that seem like you might not find on a modern baking blog – yield some fantastic results. One of my favorite recipes from the last few weeks combined buttermilk and brown sugar (and, you guessed it, RAISINS!) with fantastic results. I’m the kind of guy who generally says things like, “Buttermilk? I’m pretty sure that half cream and half half-n-half will be fine. I’ll leave it on the shelf for a couple of hours and…instant buttermilk!” Perhaps I shouldn’t say stuff like that anymore. Yet another life lesson from Br. Rick!

After a few recipes, I started wondering about Br. Rick, himself. What kind of man takes such joy in both bread and Jesus that he becomes a monk who writes bread recipe books? Well, for starters, he was into more than just bread and Jesus. He also wrote The Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking! Bread, soup, and Jesus – what else do you need? Actually, when you dig a bit deeper, you’ll see that the kitchen was actually third in line of the various passions of Br. Rick (who I should more accurately call Fr. Rick as he became a priest after he wrote his cookbooks). His first passion was obviously his dedication to God and his life as a Jesuit, but after that he had an abiding love for the stage. In fact, he started an award-winning theater company, giving people living with disabilities the opportunity to act and work through personal trauma through the art of stagecraft. He worked with the Wounded Warriors project, was a hero to many, and was doing it all with one arm because he was born without a right forearm. The guy lived an incredible life. I mean, the man got a dispensation from the Vatican so that he could become a priest, because canon law requires two hands to celebrate the Mass!

And then I realize that I’ve been sitting here wingeing and moaning about how difficult it is to crank through all these recipes using a Kitchen-Aid and, you know, two hands. Brother Rick was doing it with one arm and a splintery wooden monastery spoon (I would assume), and not only did he do it without complaining, but he managed to help wounded soldiers work through their PTSD through the majesty of live theater. And then I eat a handful of raisins and contemplate the mysteries of the universe and my own shortcomings.

One of my favorite bits about working my way through Br. Rick’s book is the way that he weaves together stories from his time in the different Jesuit residences to give you a snapshot of life in these vibrant communities and the people who live there. Prayers, reflections, and historical stories all pop up every few pages, and they all play a role in making my year of baking a part of my spiritual journey. But the sections that stick with me the most are when he tells a personal story of the people and events that have blessed his time as a Jesuit. As I have tackled the various breads of Christmas and Advent, I have learned that Brother Fitzgerald is from Philly and is extremely proud of his Christmas Morning Cinnamon Buns, that the Jesuit novices would all get the day off on Thanksgiving and the senior brothers would all pitch-in to cook Thanksgiving dinner for them, and that Brother Dragansky would not let anyone pick at the turkey carcasses after said Thanksgiving meal because he was hoarding it to make mincemeat for the Christmas season. But my favorite brother that I have met so far (other than Br. Rick, himself) has to be Brother “Benny” Biniakiewicz, who was born in Germany before arriving, somehow, at a Jesuit residence in Wisconsin. According to Br. Rick, he was “an old-school eastern European Brother,” and “his all-time favorite food was sweet potatoes. He actually never saw any value in regular white potatoes and sometimes denied their existence.”

So, after 18 loaves, 4-ish weeks of Advent, 12 days of Christmas, and one German potato-denier, I was finally able to take a week off and give the oven a bit of a rest over the last few days. It has been a great, if exhausting, addition to my holiday season. I am blessed to spend so much time with Br. Rick in the kitchen, and he is certainly helping me to turn mixing, kneading, and baking into a true practice of culinary meditation. I’m inspired by his example, and excited to see what comes next as I tackle the chapters on cornbread and rolls during this stretch of Ordinary Time. I actually got a jump on it today by making his Wernersville Cornbread. It was a good start…there were no raisins.

– Ges

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