Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cornbread and beef stew in Jesuit life.

Dinner at the St. Ignatius Jesuit Residence often involves an informal lesson or two on the history of the Society. The community I live in includes a number of accomplished raconteurs, and over the past couple months my experiences at table have been enriched by many anecdotes about Jesuit life in the 1940's, '50's and '60's. The older men here often tell stories about their own experiences in formation at the old Chicago Province novitiate in Milford, Ohio, in theology at West Baden College in Indiana or Bellarmine School of Theology in North Aurora, Illinois and working both as regents or young priests in the province's various high schools. Oral history provides an important medium through which the culture, customs and traditions of the Society are passed on, so hearing these stories is an important part of my formation as a Jesuit.

Monday's dinner provided a somewhat surprising lesson in Jesuit history. On the menu that night was beef stew served with cornbread. The older Jesuits in the community partook of this meal with great relish, some mashing up the cornbread and mixing it with the stew and others keeping the bread on the side and washing it down with maple syrup. I'd had an unusually heavy lunch (a cheeseburger and fries from Chicago's Busy Burger down the street) and I'm not much of a beef stew afficionado anyway, so I went light on the entree. One of my brother Jesuits noticed this and urged me to go up for seconds, noting that beef stew and cornbread were part of Jesuit tradition. I'd never heard this before, so I asked for an explanation. I was told that beef stew and cornbread were served regularly at the old novitiate in Milford - especially at breakfast. I must have looked fairly incredulous, because my dining companion helpfully explained that at Milford the novices had to wait a fairly long time after waking up before they had breakfast - rising at 5 a.m., each member of the community would perform his morning ablutions and meditate for nearly an hour before attending Mass and finally moving to the refectory for the first meal of the day around 7 o' clock. Under these circumstances, many novices welcomed the prospect of a hearty breakfast of beef stew and cornbread.

Having discovered the importance of beef stew and cornbread as menu items at the pre-Vatican II Milford novitiate, I wondered whether the tradition was unique to my own Chicago Province. I found a partial answer last night in the pages of I'll Die Laughing! by Father Joseph T. McGloin, S.J. A bestseller when it was first published in 1955, I'll Die Laughing! offers a lighthearted and affectionate if decidedly tongue-in-cheek account of Jesuit formation before the Second Vatican Council. In its day, McGloin's book played the role that books like The Fifth Week and In Good Company have played more recently as introductions to Jesuit life for young men interested in joining the Society. Anyhow, regarding his own novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, Father McGloin writes: "Three times a week, we had corn bread and stew for breakfast. The number of square feet of corn bread and the number of barrels of stew consumed over the course of a year would probably astonish even Ripley."

Putting Father McGloin's recollections in a larger context, one may surmise that the cornbread-and-stew tradition came to Milford from Florissant. In 1928, the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, which then covered nearly the entire middle third of the United States, was divided into two, with northern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio forming the new Chicago Province. The new province adopted the traditions of the old, especially in the area of formation; thus, the new novitiate at Milford followed the ordo and regulae of the Florissant novitiate virtually to the letter. It's easy to imagine the custom of eating cornbread and stew several times a week came to Milford in this manner, but that still leaves a few questions unanswered. How, for example, did the cornbread-and-stew tradition begin at Florissant - did it originate there, or was it brought from somewhere else? Were cornbread and stew staples at other American novitiates as well? My interest in such questions may be enough to convince some readers that I'm crazy; if nothing else, this interest shows how fascinated I am by the minutiae of Jesuit history. Whatever their sentiments, readers will no doubt be consoled to know that I'm not going to lose any sleep over these matters. However, if anyone out there - particulary Jesuits and others with knowledge of our formation - has any data on this strikingly obscure topic, feel free to post a comment. AMDG.

10 Comments:

At February 23, 2006 9:38 AM, Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Corn bread is frequently an accompaniament to meals in the New Orleans province, though I've never heard of it being particularly connected to beef stew.

 
At February 23, 2006 10:14 AM, Blogger Susan Rose, CSJP said...

No data to share! But I did want to share that my favorite thing about my local community of groovy sisters is hearing the stories at dinner!!!

And yes, I think it is an important part of the formation process!

 
At March 04, 2006 11:04 PM, Blogger SecretAgentMan said...

What I want to know is, are you a cornbread-on-the-side man, or a masher?

Our family's New Year tradition is a meal of ham and beans sprinkled with finely-chopped onions, served with cornbread. We're all "on-the-side" folks, no mashing of the cornbread occurs at any time during the meal.

 
At March 22, 2006 8:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about the corn bread and stew. I recall hearing those stories from Fran Daly, S.J. when I was a novice. He would laughingly tell of the great days as a novice. Fr. Lou Lipps would recount the history of the stew....if it was that good, I wonder that so many guys gave it up! We had a great cook at Loyola House. I think that her name was Ethel. She made the greatest porl chops, but she refused to eat pork for religious reasons! Then my classmate Jim Uhl would make giant trays of cinnamon buns and a great jar of peanut butter mixed with mapel syrup. We named it "Wookie Whip", since it's creator was a genetic replicant of the wookie, albeit without hair! Patrick Corrigan, x-n.s.j.

 
At March 22, 2006 10:09 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Patrick,

I never knew the legendary Ethel (she retired before I entered), but I've heard a lot of stories about her. I believe Ethel worked at the novitiate for about thirty years, and she was clearly an institution. Thanks for sharing some Loyola House lore. Pax,

Joe K nsj

 
At January 29, 2013 10:08 PM, Anonymous Cam von Wahlde said...

I was at Milford from 1959-1963 and could not believe the cornbread and stew the first time I saw it. Lunch had a peculiarity also. It was four or five times that I ate the liver and thought it tasted funny. The fifth time I said something and found out I had been eating cow's tongue!
When Fr. Richard O'Brien, S.J. (RIP) went to Georgetown to teach linguistics, the juniors gave him "the gift of tongue" -- a complete tongue that looked like s shi jump, decorated with all sorts of garnishes from Br. Cardozi in the kitchen.

 
At January 29, 2013 10:33 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the comment, Cam - I hadn't heard about the cow tongue being served at Milford, but I'm not surprised. Br. Cardosi, incidentally, is still very much alive, but I think he's retired from Jesuit kitchens!

 
At February 21, 2013 8:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corn bread and stew were served two times a week at Wernersville, while corn bread was served without stew for obvious reasons on Friday, between 1965-67, and presumably for decades before that. We rose at 5:30, began an hour of personal prayer at 6 am, followed by Mass at 7 am and entered the refectory at 7:45 for breakfast.

 
At November 05, 2013 3:46 PM, Blogger Daniel Perrine said...

I never saw anyone "mash" the cornbread during my years (1961-64) at Milford. The tradition I followed was to slice the cornbread in half, exposing the interior of both slices on the up-side, so they would absorb the syrup (not likely Maple, more likely Karo--things were always on the parsimonious side) which was evenly distributed on both. Followed by covering all with generous amounts of beef stew.
dan perrine, xsj

 
At May 23, 2017 8:52 PM, Blogger Daniel Perrine said...

Methinks "cow tongue" is unnecessarily derogatory: after all, we don't call rib-eye steaks "cow steaks." I first had beef tongue when my sister and I spent 2 weeks at our aunt Adele's house in Price Hill. We lived in Hyde Park/Mt Lookout (East side of Cincinnati) and my father and mother both boasted British or French forebears who came to the New World in the 1600's. (An odd thing to be proud of: that our ancestors were desperate enough to leave Europe before most of the emigrants to the US had to---although the claimed rational was that the Perrine immigrants were escaping persecution from French Kings at the urging of the Jesuits....Ha! My mother's side were all protestants ab initio, until my grandfather married an stubborn Irish lass) My father's sister had gone native and married a German from Cincinnati's western promontory, Price Hill. One evening our aunt served tongue and after the usual "euuu!" I tried the stuff and thought it was pretty tasty. The next day sandwiches made from tongue were even better.
Dan Perrine, xSJ

 

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