West Park, NY – If not for Brother Bernard I might find the Holy Cross monastery a daunting place to dine.
Not that the other 11 monks aren’t lovely, but Bernard and I have seen each other in lycra. When we rode our bikes 510 miles across Alaska in 2000 – 68 miles up the side of a mountain in a snowstorm, I might add – he and I sang songs with the word “sun” in the title to keep our spirits up.
He even gets indirect credit for Barry. The New York team was a little on the incestuous side, and I was just about to give up on the whole thing when Bernard saw me get shunned at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame by the group’s resident mean girl, and bought me a margarita.
I married the nice Jewish lawyer I met in Anchorage, and Bernard, the ex-Wall Street guy, gave up a Manhattan apartment, took a vow of poverty, and moved into a single room they call a cell.
The monastery, which is an Anglican Benedictine community, has some fabulous neighbors: It looks across the Hudson at the old Vanderbilt estate, it’s next door to the estate of naturalist John Burroughs, and down the road from Slabsides, the wooden shack where Burroughs inspired Teddy Roosevelt to build the national park system. The order has been at the 26-acre West Park estate since 1902.
The order was nearly bankrupt in the 1980s, when the brothers recognized that their economic survival was linked to hospitality. Before then, guests joked that a meal at Holy Cross met the qualifications for Lenten self-denial.
But their reputation as a gastronomic jewel began when they hired Edward Wolf.
The 41-year-old chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, was getting tired of late hours and “the drunks and criminals” who showed up in certain kitchens. And he had joked, more than once, that if anything ever happened to his partner, Lori Callaway, he would “join a monastery.”
“Well honey, here’s your opportunity,” she said five years ago, and thrust an ad at him for a chef for the Holy Cross brothers and the more than 5,000 guests who now stay at their 50-bed guest house each year.
“I met the former prior, who’s wearing Birkenstocks and ripping the filter off a Camel cigarette and I thought, ‘I might be okay,’” said Edward.
Now he runs the kitchen, she runs the guest house, and they both commute from the Port Ewen home they share with their sheltie, Mortimer.
On this day, I make my way past the men’s room sign down to the ground floor kitchen, directly beneath a spacious pantry and a modern dining room with spectacular Hudson vistas. The Victorian steam radiator pipes hiss overhead. Bernard seats me at a homey kitchen table with a proper cup of chamomile tea and rose-flavored candies left behind by a guest.
Edward replaced the canned home cooking of the former cook with a fresh larder stocked by local suppliers including Taliaferro Farms, Bread Alone, Coach Farm cheese, and the Hudson Valley Fresh co-op. He also orders from suppliers for New York’s top restaurants.
“This is what I love about the Hudson Valley. I have people who are willing to drive from Manhattan to bring me supplies.”
For today’s 12:30 lunch, the heavy meal of the day, he’s browning a case of turkey breast in garlic-infused canola oil for an Indian korma loosely based on a recipe in Complete Indian Cooking. The cookbook flips open and out slides an article from the food journal Gastronomica, English Horse-Bread, 1590-1800. Edward is a man of varied tastes.
The salad is baby organic spinach , mango, and cucumber with a yogurt dressing, and sauteed broccoli with preserved Meyer lemons. He cooks his brown rice like pasta, boiling it until it’s almost done, then drains and lets it rest in the pan. It is nuttier this way.
“When people see his food it’s like, You’re eating like this every day? It doesn’t match what some people expect with a life of piety and a vow of poverty,” Bernard says. “But this is simplicity. It’s the abundance of the creator and it’s delicious.”
Edward is from Champagne-Urbana, IL, and he has corn and soybean farmers on his mother’s side who are a part of the agribusiness culture. His uncle was not moved by his arguments for biodiverse crops and local food sourcing.
“He just thought I was the biggest joke,” he said. “And now that’s how farmers are surviving. You think it’s just on the coasts, but more and more in the midwest, farmers are starting CSAs and growing more diverse crops.”
He talks as he chops, on a long stainless steel counter, whirling to grind cardamom, swooping up a giant colander to drain spinach. He is still orchestrating the final details of the meal when the bell rings for services.
The daily noon Diurnum service takes place in the spare whitewashed chapel, where the nine monks currently in residence face each other and chant the midday prayer. It’s a calming, lovely sound, the way the brothers pause between each line just long enough to feel a little catch in your heart. The chants echo from the high rafters and it always makes me understand a bit better why my friend so loves this life.
Then there is silent devotion for 10 minutes, and I can hear the rumbling stomachs of 30 guests, students from the Yale Divinity School.
Edward sends his completed dishes up to the pantry in a 19th century dumbwaiter, to await the brothers and guests after the service. We gather around the serving tables and Brother Larry reads aloud the menu.
“We have turkey korma, a fresh organic spinach salad with cucumber mango and a yogurt dressing…”
I hear a giggle. Several students are grinning. After Brother Larry blesses the meal, after we’ve settled into our seats, there is a reading and we eat in silence. The preserved lemon has a surprisingly salty kick. The korma is creamy and warming. A brother catches my eye and barely suppresses a smile. The food, in the absence of conversation, is a shared pleasure.
Alone downstairs, Edward is bleaching his equipment and pulling supplies from the larder for the dinner meal.