It's not uncommon to hear people describe wonderful food as tasting "heavenly." Madison author Madeline Scherb took that characterization literally with her new book, A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns (Tarcher Penguin).
The book, due to hit stores the first week in August, is part travel guide, part food journalism, part cookbook. "Prior to this book, there wasn't even a single good source of contact information" for monasteries with food operations, says Scherb.
Originally from Madison, the UW-Madison grad was working in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001: "Like a lot of people, the events of that day made me question whether I was really doing what I wanted to be doing." Scherb eventually left her public relations job and with the aid of a summer journalism fellowship went to Europe to study comparative religion. There, the idea of this type of guidebook came to her.
She visited the monasteries where monks and nuns support their lives of contemplation by making food: cheeses, breads, wine, jams, candy and, yes, fruitcakes. Many function as inns as well, where tourists interested in food, or a quiet retreat, or both, are welcome. Scherb's descriptions are idyllic: "Even the monastery's charming guest quarters remind one of a favorite childhood tree house, thanks in part to a maze of suspended wooden walkways that links them...next to a pond that is home to ducks and toads and whose mirrored surface is rarely disturbed except by an occasional gust of wind." (Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Lafayette, Ore.)
Monks and nuns were slow-food supporters before there was such a movement. "They use organic types of food, very few or no preservatives, just because that's their way of life," Scherb observes. For her part, Scherb doesn't consider herself a foodie at all: "Food, for me, is simply a way of talking to people about something bigger. A gentle way for me to describe a way of life that is faith-based. For the monks and nuns, it's very similar. They make food only to support their monasteries."
Scherb recalls New York during the roaring '90s: "Every kind of consumption was completely out of control. People were completely obsessed with food, and you had to be eating extraordinarily complicated dishes. To me, there was nothing normal or healthy about that kind of obsessive interest in food." On the other hand, Scherb recognizes that "there is something about food that speaks to all of us, on a deeper level. At its best, food must be a form of love, as when your mom feeds you when you're growing up."
The first monastery Scherb visited was Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey outside of Dubuque, "a magnificent place." One of her favorite products in the book comes from that abbey, too: caramels. She continues to enjoy them even after participating in making them - "manual, backbreaking work" that reminded her of the famous I Love Lucy episode about the candy speeding by on the conveyor belt, only without the laugh track.
Chefs have donated recipes to A Taste of Heaven, and the book also offers ample opportunity for armchair traveling and mail ordering. Scherb also recommends the cheese spread spiked with sherry and the cheesecake from the Monks and Nuns of New Skete - "the best I ever had; they really know what they are doing."