Seminary memoirs are not filled with fond recollections of good food. If the food was memorable at all, it was in quirky contexts like this one from Raymond Hedin’s reminiscence about St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, in the late 1950s in Married to the Church. “Our resentment at seminary restrictions was alleviated by our keen awareness of our less fortunate peer institutions; we relished their repressions as confirmations of our own relative freedom. We developed our own folklore. At Mundelein, the major seminary for the Chicago archdiocese, so the story went, Jell-O was forbidden: too sensuous when it shook. We had unrestricted access to Jell-O. Context is everything. We had it good.”

The presence of Jell-O is no longer considered a cause for celebration within the world of theological education. Still, there is little enough to celebrate in many dining rooms. Much seminary food, whether it is prepared by tired mom-and-pop operations or dispirited religious or faceless food services, can only be described as institutional.

There are exceptions. They include, of course, schools that provide no food service at all. When, for example, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, planned its new quarters, it took advantage of the fact that Evangel College is next door, and didn’t plan for a dining area.

One school repeatedly cited as having far better than average food is the Athenaeum of Ohio, a Roman Catholic school in Cincinnati. The menu items mentioned by staff as their favorites—taco salad, fish stuffed with crab, cranberry silk pie, wild rice soup (see recipe)—make it plain that this is no greasy spoon. The dining hall itself is elegant, with five pillars supporting an arched ceiling. The carpet is green, the gold chairs rhyme with the gold leaf on the arches. The school uses what it has to good advantage, bringing in major donors for swordfish dinners, for example, or letting the archdiocese make use of the facilities for their Christmas party. Students work as waiters for such events and, according to director Jerry Smith, “We experiment with food to see if we can serve it to our students.”

 Wild Rice Soup

A regular—and popular—lunchtime offering at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

1 gallon beef stock

1 large onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

2 large carrots, chopped

3 ounce can green peppercorns

2 tablespoons thyme

2 tablespoons parsley

5 bay leaves

3 cups wild rice

? cup softened butter

1 cup flour

3 cups heavy cream

Cook rice until tender. Drain and set aside.

Bring first 8 ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain stock and discard vegetables.

Combine flour and butter until smooth. Whisk butter and flour into stock until slightly thickened. Add rice. Simmer 20 minutes.

Stir in cream. Heat thoroughly but do not boil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 40-50 people.

Things did not work out well during the school’s one-year experiment with an outside food service provider, according to business manager Dennis Egan. “The management cut too many corners, like using less expensive cuts of meat and limiting variety.”

“Our students are too sophisticated for that,” said the Reverend Gerald Haemmerle, the school’s president/rector. “They’re not all fresh out of college. They’ve gotten used to good food.”

The in-house food service has a budget of $251,000-261,000 for a student population of 230; faculty and employee meals are included in that figure. Smith has been working at the school for fourteen years, since he started part-time during high school. Other employees have been there for twenty and twenty-five years, and one recently retired after forty. The staff of five full-time employees, obviously a valued part of the community, is allowed to shine for the sake of the school.

At St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, another Catholic school, the kitchen staff does not consider cooking its primary occupation. By the time they prepare breakfast for the school’s fifty students, the Oblate Sisters of Jesus the Priest have already been to morning prayer and to mass. They take turns stepping out of the kitchen to pray for the students, faculty, and staff throughout the day. “Basically, we are contemplatives, dedicated to offering our life in love,” says Sister Margarita Gonzales. “Seminary is not easy: we help with our prayers and by serving them. We imitate Mary helping Jesus.” They also help by making the refectory a cost-effective operation. “The sisters certainly get paid,” said the Reverend Gerald Coleman, the president/rector, “but not the same kind of salaries you would see with food services.”

They are also not given to waste, and their insistence on cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients makes for happy diners. “We don’t just cook Mexican!” says Sister Margarita, though the order is a Mexican one (and although, according to Coleman, “When they do, it’s to die for”). “We do American, Italian—we have Chinese students, so we try to do Chinese.” She pauses. “Simple Chinese. The students help.”

Schools that use food services are not doomed to impersonality and high costs, although sometimes an expensive contract is renewed again and again without a great deal of thought. In Richmond, Virginia, the dining facilities shared by Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education (and since 1991 the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond) had a cost-plus contract with Aramark, a nation-wide food service, for more than fifteen years. The schools paid for the building and its upkeep and paid the food service provider their costs plus a percentage. The schools had no control over the costs, and eventually it was costing them over $100,000 per year (the deficit was divided among the schools based on the number of boarding students). Last year, the schools called for food service bids, and were pleasantly surprised to learn how many companies were willing to bid on a per-meal basis. This flexibility was built in for students—for example, students at Baptist, who have cooking facilities in their dorms, are only required to purchase lunch. The schools selected Meriwether-Godsey, a regional food service catering to private schools and nursing homes in Virginia, and Kathy Weaver, Baptist’s director of business affairs, is pleased. “We were able to keep some of the kitchen staff, although the director and the chef left, of course,” she said. “The food is better—they’re more up to date and health conscious. We’re still projecting a deficit, but a much more manageable one.” Meal costs have risen slightly—lunch went from $4.35 to $4.95—but although some students complained at first, the numbers suggest that they’re reasonably content: usually the dining hall serves 60 dinners and 125 lunches five days a week. “Lunch is a time for fellowship—and for committee meetings,” said Thomas Graves, Baptist’s president. Students, faculty, and staff from Union/PSCE, Baptist, and the third school in the Richmond Theological Consortium, Virginia Union University School of Theology, located seven blocks down the street, all rub elbows at lunch. “They realize it’s cheaper, healthier, and better than hopping in the car and driving to Wendy’s,” said Weaver.

A few lessons emerge from these stories. Your school does have choices about food; there is no one ideal arrangement. Experiment if you need to. A relationship with your food service providers that goes deeper than the bottom line will improve the food as well as the community. And if students want Jell-O, by all means, give it to them.

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