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In the Kitchen With Father Dominic
By Susan Hines-Brigger
Baking and acting are two key ingredients of this Benedictine monk's life. Put them together and you have PBS's popular Breaking Bread With Father Dominic.

Q U I C K S C A N

Beginning the Process
A Love for Baking
An Act of Reintegration
The Journey to Monastic Life
Lights, Camera, Action
Baking for Television
What's Next?
Whole Wheat Stuffing Bread
Books and Videos by Father Dominic

 

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic

Father Dominic often reminds his viewers, "Remember, it's bread. It's going to forgive you."

Photo by Gregg Goldman

It’s a warm July evening at St. Bede Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just west of Peru, Illinois, and the sound of clanging pots is coming from the abbey’s kitchen. Inside, Father Dominic Garramone, O.S.B., is getting ready to bake bread. Special occasion? Not really. It’s Thursday night—baking night.

Tonight he’s making 14 loaves of bread for the upcoming Medieval Faire at St. Bede Academy. The numerous loaves of bread already in the freezer show this is not the first night he has devoted to the task.

Sound like the life of a television host? Well, it does if you’re the host of PBS’s popular show Breaking Bread With Father Dominic (www.breaking-bread.com).

St. Anthony Messenger spent an evening working in the kitchen with Father Dominic and discussing baking, monastic life and the pros and cons of starring in a TV show.

Beginning the Process

As we talk, Father Dominic gathers up the necessary ingredients for the bread and begins placing them in the kitchen’s industrial-size mixer. As he works, he offers tips and instructions to this novice breadmaker, such as the proper temperature of the water to avoid killing the yeast, and one of his favorite sayings: “Remember, it’s bread. It’s going to forgive you.”

He doesn’t work from a recipe; he’s done this too many times. He amends the ingredients as he goes, depending on what he thinks the dough needs.

After the dough is mixed, it is set aside to rise.

Before heading off to Evening Prayer, he shows off the many tools he uses—rolling pins, bread boards, etc.—that have been handmade by his father, Ron.

A Love for Baking

It was his mother, Mary, though, who instilled his love for baking. “I grew up in a house where baking was the norm. That’s just what people did.” His mom and Grandma Tootsie, who lived with the family, were excellent bakers. They always included him and his two brothers and two sisters in their baking.

But Father Dominic’s first real experience with the joys of baking came in the fifth grade at Sacred Heart School in Peoria, Illinois. The students had to make a type of food from a French-speaking country. When Father Dominic told his mom about the assignment, she told him to make French bread—not the easiest task for a fifth-grader.

“Most people would think maybe French toast is easy, french fries,” he says. “But [making French bread] was no big deal for her.”

Father Dominic made two loaves of French bread for his class, and fell in love not only with the process of breadmaking, but also with the payoff.

“The payoff was huge, because when it was all over, there was nothing but crumbs,” he recalls. “When you’re in fifth grade, that’s a big deal if people like your stuff. So to have somebody eat all your bread—it was a good experience.”

He began baking semi-regularly throughout high school and college. But it was when he joined the monastery that he became more serious about baking.

“For one thing, I planted an herb garden and you’ve got to do something with that produce, so I started developing recipes,” he says. “Then community members would say, ‘My mom used to make X, or my grandma made the best whatever,’ and the recipe would show up in my mailbox. So I kind of became a community baker by accident.”

Being known as a baker can also be a challenge, though. “You’re expected to have this additional level of appreciation, love for and knowledge of the Eucharist, which I try to make real in myself. It does make me go deeper into the text.”

One example, he says, is the parable of the yeast. He points out that yeast was not a popular symbol for the Jews. It was a symbol of corruption. Pure bread for the Jews was unleavened bread.

In the parable of the yeast, Jesus makes the yeast a positive thing, saying that the kingdom of God is like yeast.

“In other words, the kingdom of God is like this secret influence that you think is negative, but I think is positive. [Jesus] is challenging his readers: If the things you think are evil and bad are to be excluded, maybe you need to look at it a little differently. That may be exactly what brings life,” Father Dominic says.

“So to the people who say, ‘We don’t want that kind of music in our Church,’ or ‘We don’t want that kind of theology,’ Jesus may be challenging us saying, ‘That may be exactly what is going to bring life to the Church.’”

An Act of Reintegration

After the dough has risen, Father Dominic takes it in his hands and demonstrates the proper technique for kneading the dough—push, fold and turn. Soon he turns the task over to this author.

This physical aspect of baking, he says—along with the spiritual and mental aspects—are actually all an act of reintegration.

“If I make a loaf of bread and I’m intentional about it, I have to use all of my senses. My mind, my body, my spirit get hijacked for a joyride,” he says.

As we are working, one of Father Dominic’s students enters the kitchen. On Thursday evenings it’s not uncommon to see both current and former students gather in the kitchen with Father Dominic. Two alums of St. Bede Academy will join us before the evening is over.

Father Dominic’s journey to the monastery was by no means a joyride. It was, instead, a long, methodical process.

He says he first felt called to religious life around his junior year in high school. But “When you’re a junior in high school, you’re not ready to say that out loud,” he recalls. “That takes some real courage. I’m like, ‘O.K., God, get me a date to prom and we’ll talk about this later.’”

Around that time, Father Placid Hatfield, O.S.B., a member of St. Bede’s community (www.theramp.net/stbede/index.html), brought Dominic to the abbey for a visit. On his second visit, Father Dominic recalls, he knew it was the place for him.

He wanted to make sure he wasn’t just feeling drawn toward religious life, though, simply because he had been immersed in Catholic culture throughout his life and schooling. He enrolled in Illinois Wesleyan University, where he majored in theater. But during his sophomore year, he once again began feeling the pull toward religious life.

“On the first of January in 1981, I started a novena to St. Joseph, because I figured here was a guy who understood God calling you to do stuff that everybody else thought was crazy,” Father Dominic says. “When I did this novena to St. Joseph, one of the things I was concentrating on was, ‘O.K., this means you’re not a theater major anymore. You’re going to be a monk.’”

He accepted that reality and, at the end of the 30-day novena, visited the monastery and expressed his desire to join. He says he had even accepted that he would probably have to change his major to religious studies.

But to his surprise, the abbot told him, “I have a lot of religion teachers. I need a speech teacher and a drama director and a stage manager.” So what happened, Father Dominic says, “was that I handed this thing over to God and he handed it back to me transformed. I said, ‘O.K., it’s not about me anymore.’ And God said, ‘You’re right. And I’m going to hand it back to you and make it about someone else. You’re going to become an educator instead of a performer.’”

Father Dominic enrolled at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minnesota (now St. Mary’s University), and continued in theater while living at the seminary.

He discovered that his experience in the seminary aided his theater work.

“Theater is a collaborative art, and it does teach cooperation, but there’s always that star-power thing,” he admits. “So being in the seminary made me a better theater student because it teaches you to kind of subdue your own desire within this greater task.”

He entered the novitiate on November 1, 1983. The following year he took his first vows. Shortly after, he began teaching at the academy and directing plays. Then his life took an unexpected detour.

“I had no intention of becoming a priest,” he says. His call to the priesthood was, he believes, genuinely a call from the Church because it was his students who kept bringing up the idea. Because it was others calling him to this ministry, he says he had to give the idea serious consideration. It was “the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit working through others calling me,” he says.

It was also the perfect way to be called, he believes.

“If this had come from me, it would have been, Is this just a substitute for star power? Is this just one more way of me being on the center stage?” he says.

On June 7, 1992, he celebrated his first Mass at St. Bede Abbey. He returned to teaching, became head of the religion department, chaplain of the Academy and its drama director.

Needless to say, he was more than busy. And then came the television show.

One of Father Dominic’s friends mentioned his name to producers at KETC-TV in St. Louis while pitching a potential show idea. Father Dominic says he told her to go ahead only because he thought nothing would come of it. He was wrong. They liked the idea and came to watch him teach. And they came on just the right day.

“They came on the day that I was teaching the multiplication of the loaves in freshman religion. I do a reflection called ‘What Kind of Bread Shall We Be?’ where we talk about different kinds of bread and how they symbolize different kinds of Christian ministry,” he says.

For example, he points out, “There are rye-bread Christians who have a really unique flavor, like rye bread. Not everyone likes rye bread. But the people who do like rye bread really do. I think rye-bread Christians are like the prophets in our midst. Not everyone likes them and sometimes they’ve got a little flavor that makes people say, ‘I don’t like that.” But sometimes that’s exactly what the Church needs. They’re not afraid to be themselves.”

Immediately after the class, he was offered a TV show. His first reaction, he says, was to turn them down.

“We already had that discussion with God,” he says. “You know, handed it over, handed it back, and now I’m the backstage guy.”

But when he took the proposal to the abbot at that time, Abbot Roger Corpus, O.S.B., the abbot pointed out that this was an opportunity to show a real monk to people, not a Hollywood view or a sitcom view of what people think monks are.

Father Dominic told the producers that, if he signed on, they were going to “get a Benedictine monk who’s a priest. You’re not going to get a baker who happens to be wearing a habit.” They agreed. They were looking for someone who was going to bring something different to the world of food television.

He told them, “People don’t need recipes, they need reasons to bake. They need somebody to say, ‘When I bake, I get this great feeling. I connect with this wonderful experience I had when I first found this bread or I remember my great-grandmother.”

The first show aired in 1999.

The loaves of bread are placed in the oven but, before closing the door, Father Dominic gives one final instruction: “Bless the bread.” He explains that his mom and grandma taught him always to bless the bread before baking it. We quickly make the sign of the cross over the bread and close the oven door.

Adjusting to baking on television was difficult, admits Father Dominic.

“If your bread is not rising, there’s nothing you can do to make it rise. If it’s not working out, it’s not like all you have to do is trim the fat off another steak and throw it on the grill. If you’ve blown it, you’ve got another two hours before you get another chance,” he says.

He says the long hours are also tough, noting that often the crew gets to the studio at 7 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t leave until 11 p.m.

He says it is worth it, though, because of the encouraging letters and e-mails he receives. He remembers one in particular from a man who said he watched the show and was struck by how happy Father Dominic seemed. The man then said that he realized it was because God was Father Dominic’s best friend. The man said that he wanted to be that happy and had started going back to Church and trying to get his spirituality back.

“If the whole show had crashed and burned, it would have been worth it for this one guy saying, ‘You brought me back to God,’” Father Dominic says.

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic, which ran for three seasons, is currently on hiatus. Father Dominic explains, “I felt like it was starting to interfere with my ministry a little bit and my own prayer life. So I took a year off to write Bake and Be Blessed, which is my book of reflections.”

As for the future of the show, he simply says, “We’re looking now at the possibility of doing another season or maybe doing another program.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s not staying busy. He’s still teaching at the Academy, directing plays and theater groups and organizing events such as the Medieval Faire. He says that one of the common misperceptions of monastic life is that there is an unrelenting sameness.

“I have not found that to be the case. We have 1,100 acres. We have a library with four floors of books. How bored could I possibly get? There is this huge kitchen and wonderful collection of cookbooks and a lot of people to feed. We’ve got a lovely garden, and with the high school, we’ve got our own basketball court, weight room, swimming pool.

“There are so many things to be interested in, so many things to be involved in, so many things to learn. Since I joined the monastery—I’m quite serious—I’ve been bored six times, and they all lasted about 10 minutes,” he says.

And then there is the baking.

“I’m still testing recipes left and right, so it’s not like I’ve stopped baking,” he says. In fact, he admits, “I can’t go too long without baking. I really can’t. I go a week without getting my hands in the dough and I get a little cranky.”

The timer goes off and we remove the bread from the oven. Father Dominic taps his finger on the bread to check for the hollow sound of perfectly baked bread. He brushes the tops of the loaves with butter and calls it a night. These loaves are ready to be broken and shared.

 

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since interviewing Father Dominic, she has actually put the skills he taught her to use and made bread for her family, friends and colleagues.

 

This is the ideal bread for turkey sandwiches the day after a holiday meal. The bread tastes like stuffing!

This was one of my first attempts at herb bread without a net (i.e., with no recipe). I’m happy with the results.

2 packages Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast

1 cup warm water

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2-1/2 to 3 cups Hodgson Mill Best for Bread Flour, divided

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon dried sage

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Graham Flour

Combine yeast, warm water, brown sugar and 1/2 cup of the bread flour in a bowl; stir to dissolve yeast. Let stand 10 minutes until foamy.

Heat oil in a skillet. Add onion; cook over medium heat and stir until translucent but not browned. Remove from heat. Stir in sage and thyme. Let cool to lukewarm.

Heat milk in a saucepan until lukewarm. Combine milk, onion mixture and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir in yeast mixture.

Add the whole wheat flour; mix thoroughly. Let rest 5 minutes. Add 2 cups of the bread flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing after each addition. Add enough of the remaining bread flour, 1/4 cup at a time, to make a fairly stiff dough. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, shiny and slightly sticky.

Lightly oil the surface of the dough; place in the rinsed mixing bowl. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place about 1 hour, or until doubled.

Punch down dough. Knead about 1 minute. Divide dough into 2 equal pieces. Form each piece into a loaf and place in greased 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Or shape free-form or round loaves and place on a greased cookie sheet. Cover and let rise 30 to 45 minutes, or until nearly doubled. If making free-form or round loaves, cut diagonal slashes in the tops with a sharp knife.

While dough is rising, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake loaves 45 minutes, or until golden brown and loaves sound hollow when tapped. Remove from pans and let cool on wire racks.

Yield: 2 loaves

Note: Be sure your whole wheat flour is fresh. Whole wheat flour can go rancid faster than white flour, and that has a seriously negative effect on the flavor of the bread.

A tablespoon of wheat gluten added before the flour goes in will make a lighter, softer loaf.

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic,
by Father Dominic Garramone, O.S.B.

 

All books and videos are published by KETC and are available online at www.breaking-bread.com.

The Basics of Making Bread With Father Dominic—a one-hour instructional video filled with baking tips and techniques ($19.95)

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic—Series on Video ($14.95/each episode)

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic—Companion Cookbook for first season ($19.95)

Breaking Bread With Father Dominic 2—Companion Cookbook for second season ($19.95)

More Breaking Bread—Companion Cookbook for third season ($19.95)

Bake and Be Blessed: Bread Baking as a Metaphor for Spiritual Growth ($15.95).


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