Half the fun was getting to breakfast. We rose at 5:40 AM with a twenty-minute window to faire une toilette and show up, in jacket and tie, across campus at the chapel for the 6 AM hour of Morning Prayer and Mass on wooden kneelers. Looking back, that was a minor organizational achievement, if you toss in the uncertainties of a Catskill climate. It is true that from time to time in Anthony McGuire’s regime we would get a little lax about the 6 AM deadline, and he would move the waking bell back to 5:30 for a spell. Cue Cool Hand Luke: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
The mind is a funny thing. My most intense memories of eating come from my first year [1962-1963] when we were crowded into what later became known as “the old refectory.” Groundbreaking for the new refectory was held just a week or so after my class arrived. The old facility is the last thing I will remember when I die. It was the ultimate culture shock of leaving home unless you grew up with fifteen siblings in an apartment over a sailors’ greasy spoon joint. The artist Eric Enstrom must have passed through Aroma Hill around 1918, and his famous “Grace” painting was something of a cosmic protest.
“Eating in peace” was a foreign concept. For an introvert, the entire boarding school experience was very trying, but for the first year or so I found meals to be the hardest adjustment, as we were assigned to the same table and the same seat, at four-month intervals. If, by chance, you were assigned to a table of guys who were working through anger issues, it could be grueling, particularly when mixed with the typical adolescent tendency of herding and piling on. For example, if you received a regular stream of mail from home—which was distributed at lunch or supper—you could be tagged “a mama’s boy.” Looking back, I realize now that a fair number got no mail, which may have been painful for them. I told my family not to send birthday cards. In the absence of privacy, mine, and theirs, we were all kind of raw with each other. I found the new refectory to be considerably more congenial where there seemed to be more “psychological space.” [Smaller table groups, more space, etc.]
Breakfast is not hard to recall because, as I noted, there was only the one menu. The positives: the bread was fresh baked, the butter was butter, there were several options of cold cereal, and the coffee was hot. The negatives: rinse and repeat 1800 times, and an absence of warm food. The cereal was always Kellogg’s, in the little boxes. I don’t remember any of the “kiddie” brands like Frosted Flakes or Sugar Pops. I ate Rice Krispies for six years. We did get Shredded Wheat; in my notorious fourth year dorm room, which started the 1965 Northeast Blackout, one of my classmates would have a midnight snack of shredded wheat and Tang in bed after lights out. At breakfast, guys went to considerable extremes to replicate the experience of toast by buttering their bread and placing the table coffee pot on it. For us caffeine addicts—and I became one in my second week—the pot was so greasy that it slid down the long table in our direction like a meteor in the atmosphere. It does surprise me, looking back, that caffeine ingestion by minors was never an issue. I can recall drinking three or four cups at breakfast and walking out with a true high that sustained me for several hours.
All meals depended on the politics between a table and its waiter. There were two waiter crews that rotated weekly, and your table’s regular two waiters were all that stood between you and second helpings—and sometimes, first helpings. In the old refectory, it was not always possible to get all the food out on one platter, and there was a “gentleman’s agreement” to start the food at the opposite end of the table every other week. My table in freshman year was served by Aubrey McNeill from fifth year, a man of extraordinary patience who faced the cries of Aubrey! Aubrey! Aubrey! with considerable magnanimity. In 2017 my wife and I visited Aubrey, then a pastor in Anderson, SC, and I had a chance to thank him and apologize for my classmate John Burke.
Lunch and dinner were more unpredictable meals in that the appeal of the various offerings differed widely. But first they were preceded by some of the worst spiritual reading in Western Civilization. For my entire freshman year, we were subjected to Luke Delmege  by P.A. Sheehan, all 592 pages. I wondered if that book was still available today: as of 8 AM March 17, 2022, it is rated Amazon’s 10,920,482nd best seller. Amazon had this to say: Luke had thought his vocation lay in converting the English to Catholicism, but instead he was taken in by the lure of fine manners and polish. Although it was sometimes hard to wade through the preachiness and nationalism typical of a Canon Sheehan novel, I am glad for the glimpse it provided of the time--ca. 1900--and the place--Co. Tipperary, Ireland--when nation and faith were viewed as intrinsically bound. That time, of course, is over, but it can be hoped that the gentle spirit of the Irish people lives on. How nice on St. Patrick’s Day.
The mood of the student body alternately rose and fell with the entrees du jour. In truth, looking back at the seminary from a culinary vantage point, we did OK. We certainly never went hungry, and the sheer amount of food preparations—three full meals a day—for a population of students ranging in age from high school freshmen to army veterans must have been quite a challenge. However, there were “eccentricities” in our food service—as there are in any institution—that we immortalize over the years. Just the other day someone mentioned to me how he hated the liver meals. We never had liver in Callicoon, but there was on occasion some mystery about what we were eating—a sliced offering we called “mutton” and a fish fillet we called “shark steaks.” [Just yesterday I was reminded by a classmate that “green jelly” was served with one of our meat dishes, probably the mutton?]
The grand-daddy of despised kitchen offerings was a tureen filled with a grey sauce and chunks of Spam-like meat. This offering was called “L.P.” and in good taste—no pun intended--I will not spell it out. David Lingelbach told me once that he mentioned this meal by its student name to one of the friars, and he replied, “We had L.P. on our side of the house, too.” [Anybody that spells this out online is cut off from all future posts. Facebook might beat me to it.] I’ve been asked to mention the meatballs: “belly bombs,” were small individual meatloaves requiring a serrated knife. Personally, I was never much for the canned peaches in vanilla pudding tureen when it came by.
What kept a lot of guys alive, in their telling, was peanut butter. In my recollection a jar or two of peanut butter was always available at lunch. I have heard the legend that a student in the class ahead of me screwed the lid of a jar permanently into and under the table and changed out a fresh new jar every few days in case he didn’t like dinner. That would have been possible with the old refectory tables. The oil separated from the peanuts in storage, and the first guy who opened a new jar had to churn things up a bit before passing it along. In my first week at St. Joe’s, I was told that the oil separated because we bought our PB from the New York City Welfare Department. I was lied to a lot in my early days. I asked an upper classman if they were going to pad the kneelers in the chapel, and he said, “they’re being ordered.”
The desserts were generally good; fresh cake and frosting was not unheard of. Desserts were the gambling coinage of the land—our jump on bitcoins—as we were not supposed to have “walking around money” as Lyndon Johnson once put it. As in Vegas, gambling had hidden trap doors. If you bet a dessert and lost a bet, inevitably the kitchen served up spice cake with frosting. When you won, it was a prepackaged Moon pie. The fall season brought cider to the table in place of milk, and with it some dining room “cider bouts,” as in who could [or would dare] drink the most cups of cider. Some guys consumed as much as 25 cups of cider during a meal. More detail could be provided but I doubt it is necessary.
At lunch on Friday, the rule book was read in its entirety as we ate in silence. Naïve young student that I was, I took the precept “particular friendships are strictly forbidden” to mean I had to like all the other seminarians equally. I had an idea that this would be quite a challenge, judging from a week or two of sizing up the place. Soon I adopted the general wisdom that it was an unenforceable rule. Later I came to learn that there were sexual overtones implied. All I can say is that in 2022 I still have particular friendships with about a half dozen classmates that I met sixty years ago. We talk frequently on the phone to this day, and we are still waiting for something terrible to happen…and so are our wives.
My own table manners were nothing to write home about, and on my fourth night in Callicoon, feeling depressed and homesick, I got flagged after dinner by Father Cyprian Burke. “You did not cut your tomato slices. You put them in your mouth whole. I will be looking for an improvement.” Now I felt worse, and I wandered into the chapel and discovered the Tuesday night confessions in progress. To my surprise, Father Cyprian’s name was on one of the confessional doors, so I went in, and I apologized for my poor eating habits. This confession came as quite a surprise to Father Cyprian Lynch, the history teacher, who said, “I don’t think I’ve heard that before.” He would be my confessor for the next several years.
Some of the sidebars to meals: after supper on Wednesdays and Saturdays the prefect on duty would read a list of the house jobs that were imperfectly executed. On a rare occasion I recall the list being read before the meal and the guilty were sent out immediately…disciplinary infractions during the meal were punished by forced kneeling in front of the prefect’s table…occasionally there was a midmeal expulsion from the room, as when one of my classmates pretended to throw up in a tureen of lunch.
After dinner each night the seven-decade Franciscan Crown rosary was prayed as the students who participated walked around the lake. I still chuckle at how we would plan our mischief for “after the Crown.” I would ask my friend who had a contraband copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue if I could see it for a minute, for a dessert, of course, and he would say, “sure, meet me after the Crown.” Or two guys would get into a fight during dinner, and one would say, “Let’s settle this after the Crown.”
I was never formally assigned to the waiter’s crew in six years, but in college I subbed several times a week. I was working my first breakfast shift with a table of freshmen. I hadn’t had my coffee and I was grouchy. I called for their empty cereal boxes and held out my apron, and they fired them through the air to me in a cascade. Suddenly the prefect’s bell rang, the room went silent, and Ed Flanagan red in the face, called out “Mr. Burns!” I did the “dead man walking” procession to the head table with an apron full of empty Kellogg’s boxes. “What in the world are you doing?” He proceeded to lecture me on how I should be setting better example for the younger men, how they looked up to us for example. He went on and on. And then he stopped. He looked at me. He looked at the student body watching us. Finally, he sighed and muttered, “This sure isn’t the Ritz.”
Amen to that.