I can honestly say that I never went hungry in my six years at St. Joseph Seminary on Aroma Hill. Don’t imply from my statement that, like cruise ship guests, we could eat whenever we wanted. One of the evolutionary milestones of the seminary was the introduction around 1965 of an afternoon snack in the seminary refectory, consisting of milk, white bread, and jelly. Prior to that, food was served at the three meals at 7 AM, Noon, and 6 PM. During my first year [1962-1963] when St. Joe’s enrollment was probably at its zenith, construction began on a new refectory wing to be opened in our sophomore year. So, the dining room in use when my class arrived was squeezed tight; in fact, the sixth-year men, the college sophomores in their final year before taking the habit, had a separate small dining room adjacent to ours, but they ate the same food under the watchful eye of one of the three prefects of discipline.
There are two things I remember about dining: the menus themselves and the odd things that went on during the meals. As I noted in an earlier post, the breakfast menu lasted longer than the pyramids. It was simplicity at its finest: coffee, white bread baked at the facility, butter, and those little boxes of Kellogg’s cereals you still see today in your local grocery chain. The waiter [students formed the 10-member waiting teams] would open his apron and a variety of cereals would tumble out and gradually make their way down the table like lava chunks from a volcano. I seem to remember eating Rice Krispies every day, so there must have been some measure of choice. However, a close friend and classmate reminded me the other day that we would on occasion write the date on an unused box to see how long it would remain in circulation.
Our seats at table were assigned for an entire semester, and life could be difficult for those at the end of the table. The tables themselves seated 12 to 14 [plus the odd man at the end]. They were made of wood by German Franciscan brothers, true craftsmen, and they weighed a ton. If the poor guy at the end of the table, who sat between the table and the wall, annoyed the rest of us at the table, we would strain to pick up the table and pin him to the wall. Looking back, we could have broken ribs with that tactic.
One of the crosses at all our meals was the “reading” of a presumably intended inspirational text by a select collegian. There is no one in my class who has forgotten that we were subjected to all 500 pages of Luke Delmege by P.A. Sheehan. Amazon describes the text thusly: “In this novel the young curate, scholarly, enthusiastic about his priestly vocation, is anxious to improve his Irish parishioners. With profound insight and great humor, Canon Sheehan (1852-1913) sketches the inner life of the Irish cleric.” Published in 1901, the work was over 60 years old by the time it was inflicted upon us. The length of the reading depended upon the whim of the Senior Prefect, and food was not served without a generous appetizer of Luke Delmege. At Friday lunch we ate the full meal in silence as the seminary rulebook was read in its entirety, with its reminder that “particular friendships were forbidden.” Fortunately, we never took that rule seriously and I am not aware that it was even enforced.
If the breakfast menu was predictable, lunch was more varied, and some lunch items were quite good. Tuna fish on the hearty home-baked white bread was one of my favorites. But truth be told, many of us went to an old dependable at lunch time, peanut butter. A jar was provided for each table, and the first user had to “homogenize” it as the oil was always separated. There was a story afloat that the seminary purchased its peanut butter from a government emergency stockpile when the expiration date came up, or some variation of that. If too many students passed on the main course in favor of the peanut butter, the Prefect of Discipline would put an embargo on peanut butter and jelly, and some guys required treatment for withdrawal symptoms. There was a very muscular athlete in the class ahead of us who brilliantly beat the embargo: he obtained a fresh jar of PB and nailed the lid to the underside of the table. He could eat PB at any meal he wished as nobody would mess with his stash.
The beverage for all meals was milk, provided by the seminary’s herd, and coffee with breakfast. I am grateful to St. Joe’s for introducing me to coffee. The one exception on beverages occurred in the late fall when the seminary’s apple crop was ground into cider, which was served at lunch in place of milk. The very fresh cider was quite potent in its digestive effects, and lunch would be playfully interrupted at a table as two guys would get into a “cider bout.” I saw a classmate consume 23 coffee cups of cider in one sitting without the prefect spotting his excess. I made the mistake of hiking with him later in the afternoon when his good luck ran out, figuratively and literally. He frantically forced open a small hunter’s cabin along the Delaware River, only to discover too late that the water had been shut off for the winter. Luke Delmege would never do such things.
Lunch desserts were prepackaged ice cream treats or occasional other items such as Moon Pies, still popular today. In reading accounts of other seminaries, I find that desserts were the coinage of the realm everywhere. If you wanted to bet on something, the wager was the next meal’s dessert. This carried the same risks as trading in the stock market, because the menus were not posted in advance, and your “dividend” might be as diverse as frosted cake [a rare favorite] to the much-maligned canned peaches in vanilla pudding. On Sundays the kitchen would sometimes prepare a very good spice cake covered generously with confectioner’s sugar. On Sundays we were required to wear our black suits, and there was always one idiot who would pick up your piece of cake and blow as hard as he could, dousing your suit with confectioner’s sugar, which is nearly impossible to remove.
Supper was always interesting, but particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, because on occasion after the Luke Delmege reading the Prefect of Discipline would read a list of house jobs or chores, completed on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, which had not been done or had been done poorly. The students responsible were told to leave immediately and redo them. Then dinner would proceed at its usual clip, meaning those guys frequently missed supper. It was too bad for them, because supper was generally a good meal, all things considered. From time to time we would have sausages, and one night we punctured one to see how high the geyser of grease might rise. The meatballs were referred to as “belly bombs” and baked fish as “shark steaks,” but there was also chicken, beef, and a few meats we were never sure about, but I can’t complain; I think we had it pretty good.
If someone misbehaved during dinner, the prefect would order the miscreant to kneel in front of the prefect’s dining platform, in full view of all of us, as something of a reminder to maintain decorum. The funniest and most original dining room caper occurred one night when a high school student—I’m not sure who—took a round little beet and used his spoon to rocket it all the way across the room unseen by the prefect where it landed flush into a full cup of milk being raised to the lips of a collegian and almost drowning him. I honestly don’t think that stunt could ever be replicated. It was like attending a perfect game in baseball you didn’t know was coming.
So were many things in the days on the hill.
On My Mind