by Dan Madden
ATCHISON — It started out as a good old-fashioned Catholic guilt trip.
Benedictine Brother Leven Harton, in the process of planning a mission trip to El Salvador for a group of Benedictine College students, sent boxes of peanut brittle and other treats to his income-earning friends with a note that began something like this:
“Merry Christmas to you! As you can see, I’ve sent you delicious treats to munch on during the holiday season — some tasty peanut brittle, decadent peanut clusters and mouth-watering cracker jacks. What is the purpose of such a generous act? To guilt you into giving money to a worthy cause, of course! The high-quality sweets you have received are made with monk-grown Kansas peanuts and pecans — nuts sown by your friend, Brother Leven Harton himself.”
Slathering it on like his pre-hardened brittle, the young Brother then delivered his cradle-Catholic closer: “Hours and hours of intense, back-breaking labor went into the production of this candy just for you. Can you possibly refuse to offer a gift in return?”
Turns out, they couldn’t. Recipients of the letter responded generously. Brother Leven’s peanut-laden pleas helped fund mission trips, Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) conferences and other worthy ventures. Especially popular was the peanut brittle, a recipe Brother Leven received from his mother.
Now he’s taking Mom’s recipe to a wider audience in the form of “Benedict’s Brittle,” a new home ministry to support the works and life of prayer at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.
Packaged in tins bearing the image of a pious-looking St. Benedict holding a plump peanut, “Benedict’s Brittle” arrives this autumn, just in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.
Before launching his initiative, however, Brother Leven visited the monks of Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas, who have sold peanut brittle for several years. There he learned all he could about the business.
“They have more orders than they can serve,” Brother Leven said. “I came away really fired up. I realized that after production, packaging and shipping, this can still be a lucrative cottage industry for our community.”
Brother Leven did considerable cost analysis and market research before proposing his plan, knowing that it would take time away from his studies and formation. But when he reported back to his Benedictine superiors, he received the hearty approval of Father Denis Meade, his junior master, and Abbot Barnabas Senecal, who were both impressed with his resourcefulness.
In true Benedictine spirit, Brother Leven’s business has sprung from humble beginnings.
Like centuries of monk/entrepreneurs before him, if his peanut brittle business meets with sweet success, it will be the result of almost obstinate persistence.
You see, in 2007, the young monk originally set out to make peanut butter, with the intention of growing the peanuts at the Kansas abbey — where the growing season is too short and the muddy, clay soil too dense. Why?
“I just love peanut butter!” he replied with a grin.
Two years later, after battling hungry deer and uncooperative weather, he “succeeded” in raising a “weed farm with a few peanuts.”
But he did harvest some 10,000 usable peanuts.
Over time, he nurtured about 300 to 400 plants. The trouble was, it took about 30 plants to make just one jar of peanut butter. That’s about 70 to 80 hours of hot labor for 10 jars of peanut butter.
Then came Mom’s visit and the peanut brittle recipe. Like a mad scientist, the young monk set to work, experimenting in the abbey kitchen. The first few batches were inedible. By Christmas, he had concocted four batches, but only one was worth eating.
“The three others were really chewy, but I didn’t want to waste them, so I set them out for the monks,” he recalls. “Brother Robert and Brother Anthony each lost a filling eating it.”
It took a hundred or so more batches for Brother Leven to perfect his craft to the point where he felt comfortable sending his candy out for fundraisers.
But now, he says, it’s a lot better than anything you’ll buy in the store. He recently bought some from the biggest brand on the market and declared it “awful.”
“It has no character,” he said. “It’s full of preservatives.”
Brother Leven is not at all bashful about claiming that his is much better: lots of peanuts — no preservatives.
“There’s a 30-second window in the process that determines whether it’s undercooked or burned, and a candy thermometer isn’t as precise,” he explained. “I go by color and density. I’ve got it down now . . . more or less.”
While Brother Leven will have to import a lot of peanuts to supplement his own, a handful of his tasty “Carolina blacks,” home-grown out behind St. Benedict’s Abbey, will be sprinkled throughout every order he ships.
Despite some initial costs, like restructuring the abbey kitchen and purchasing tools, Brother Leven says a peanut brittle business is still a low-risk investment for his community. He noted that he had to guarantee to his superiors that he could sell a few hundred orders in the first year to get the go-ahead.
But he’s not worried. He’s confident the abbey’s friends will help him hit his target.
Of course, if all else fails, he’s got the best of all fallback positions: good, old-fashioned Catholic guilt.