By Fr. Michael W. Maher, S.J.
When one thinks of the Jesuits, imaginations frequently turn to masters in the classrooms, explorers along the Mississippi, or astronomers at their telescopes. Benedictines had their beer, the monastic community of the Chartreuse their famous liqueur, but few people associate members of the Society of Jesus with culinary expertise or the production of food. However, historical documents left by the Jesuits reveal some interesting stories and the theological grounding of their relation to food, which of course like all things Jesuit, has its basis in the Spiritual Exercises.
When we consider how the Jesuits acted, or at least should act, the best place to turn is the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius of Loyola created the Spiritual Exercises as a series of activities that helped men and women grow in their love and knowledge of God. For Ignatius, bringing souls to God was of paramount importance and therefore nourishment of both body and soul was necessary. He established two goals concerning what and how people ate: the food in a Jesuit community should resemble that eaten by the poor; and food should be of a quality (and quantity) that helped these same men work vigorously in the vineyard of the Lord.
The Jesuits working in this vast vineyard had some interesting stories concerning food. Although the Constitutions stated that food was to be adequate to the task, sometimes this was more desire than reality. In France in 1562 one Jesuit reported that the community bread “was so hard the mice wouldn’t even taste it.”
Jesuits on the missions were required to “eat local.” The man who did so much to establish a more culturally sensitive presence of the Jesuits in Asia, Allesandro Valignano (1539-1606), admonished Jesuit communities to embrace Japanese food while there. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the great missionary to China and confidant to the highest circles of Chinese society, described with great interest the food of the celestial empire, noting how it was cut in small pieces and eaten with long sticks.
Jesuits of certain age may remember (fondly?) the Custom Book for the American Jesuits composed in 1960 which regulated most aspects of their daily life, including precise recommendations for meals. Breakfast: Fruit, coffee, milk, butter, bread (toast or cornbread), cereal, together with one course of such foods as are commonly served for breakfast in that particular region. The noon meal: Soup, one meat course, potatoes or some substitute (rice or macaroni) a salad, two vegetables with desert being fruit, cookies, or cheese. Drinks supplied were to be water, milk, beer, or wine, according to the custom of the place, and tea and coffee.The evening meal: Same as the noon meal except the potato or one of the vegetable dishes are omitted.
The presence of wine and beer at lunch reflect a more Mediterranean rhythm to the daily order which, to my regret, is no longer followed.
On the occasion of a Gaudiosa, a partial reflection of the eternal banquet, such delicacies as a second meat course, a few more glasses of wine, and a special desert were served. These occurred only on Feasts of the Lord, Feasts of Our Blessed Mother, Feasts of the Apostles, the patron saint of the superior, the titular feast of the community and the provincial visitation.
So what is the “take away”? The Jesuit relationship to food is neither greater nor lesser than their relationship they should have to all other aspects of creation as articulated in the “First Principle and Foundation.” Jesuits, as their founder required of them, were to make use of God’s creation in such a way that it would help them and those with whom they worked and lived move ever closer to the heart of Christ.
Father Maher is Associate Professor of History and Director Catholic Studies at Gonzaga University.