Sunday, June 25


Dining with Dead Jesuits

The View from New York, 06/25/06

I doubt anyone notices the linoleum in the front hall of the Culinary Institute of America. It’s vintage turn-of-the-century, green-grey, and marked with four initials in big, blocky Big Man on Campus Letters—it took me a moment to figure out what they were, and then I realized it was AMDG, the motto of the Jesuits. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, to the Greater Glory of God. Students spin past this spot so quickly in a thin, constant, frenetic trickle, they may never even see the letters, much less divine the words they stand for.

It was one of those pale, damp, washed-out wet days in late Spring. The morning had been solemn, mournful and pearl-grey as the rain waxed and waned, the spring green of the rolling hills bright against the vacant white sky.

I was at the CIA—and yes, they really use those initials on all their baseball caps and sweatshirts—for a fancy afternoon meal with my mom, dad and grandmother, a little grace-note to celebrate my graduation before I finally plopped myself down in my New York apartment. It was still raining that afternoon, and the vivid spring greenery of the mountainous uplands of New York State were shrouded in thin, milky mist, the kind of flat blank contrast that turns fall leaves from red to day-glo orange. I was at the CIA and the fact that on the floor of this temple to fresh-faced, can-do-and-a-spring-of-aioli American Epicureanism (there are worse vices), was the foundational text of the Company of Jesus did not surprise me. I’d been properly warned.

The Culinary Institute of America is an immense red-brick barracks of a building looming up on a little hillock on the side of the interstate in a little town called Hyde Park just south of Poughkeepsie. It’s one of those stone-trimmed Colonial Williamsburg-on-steroids deals that were so popular with big institutions back about a century ago. The roofline bristles with verdigrissed cupolas, dormers and belfries, and below are orderly even ranks of mullioned windows. The place is majestic—the words “pile” and “stately” convey some sense of its genial bulk. At the front it’s a massive slab of façade, at the back, it cascades into an open question of descending wings and a long projecting plateau of auditorium that looks, from its apsidal back, strangely like a chapel.

You’d be forgiven if you thought as much. A glance at the handy you-are-here map in the crowded little front foyer indicates the auditorium floorplan suggests nothing so much as a little Counterreformation church with sanctuary and three neat little side chapels per side. It suggests this because, in another life, it was just that. There’s a lonely little IHS that still roosts amid the tromp-l’oeil clouds of the beaux-arts baroque ceiling, and Melchisedek, King of Salem, offers bread and wine against the rain-dulled stained glass as if nothing ever happened.

My friend Dan specializes in figuring out where things go when they’ve been forgotten, especially Catholic things. Naturally, he’s learned a lot about the late sixties as a consequence. Something happened here about then. Statisticians who keep track of this sort of thing report that the high water mark of American Catholicism, in terms of priestly vocations, was not some mystical grey-flannel month in 1950 but 1965, square in the wake of a pastoral Council that happened to convene, through no fault of its own, in the middle of the lurid Age of Aquarius, and a thousand new fads already well-advanced in certain odder and more esoteric sectors of the American church quietly slid into the wings under the stolen flag of Vatican II.

Five years later, in 1970, the Jesuits move out of the seminary of St. Andrews-on-Hudson, with its 150 rooms, its eighty acres of turf, and its presence lamp burning scarlet, for one million dollars and moved their entire novice class into apartments in Manhattan. The province essentially self-destructed shortly thereafter, with their major seminary in Maryland quickly going the way of the dinosaurs.

The CIA occupies the former Jesuit novitiate now; they poured over four millions into the one-million dollar complex. Dan had told me about it before, the result of his part-time scraping of archives and memoirs, sifting through the idle notices that chronicled the spectacular self-immolation of scores of religious orders in that strange era, with its odd yoking of sudden decline and chiliastic optimism.

Do not expect too much of the end of the world—or in this case, the end of history. It always comes back from the grave—whether it’s 1789 or 1989. We can look on those bizarre times from the relative hindsight and comparative security—yes, I dare to use that word, but I’ll take the security I can get—of the eras of John Paul and Benedict, but we’ll never get inside the heads of those on both sides and in the middle, of that age of the dueling magisterium of the Papacy and the anti-magisterium set up by a gaggle of theologians in the wake of Humanae Vitae. All we can do is examine the evidence, and wonder at it.

I stood in the doorframe under the little port-cochere, looking out into the pale murk of the rain and the faded hillscape beyond. The gravelly, concretey piazza was new, the sort of quiet, understated and rather unimaginatively pleasant landscaping that modern architects turn to when they have to work with classicism. There’s an enormous garage below, built into the hillside as it sweeps down to the rain-pocked silver-grey sweep of the Hudson.

It’s quite a place. I’d looked all over the looming institutional-colonial façade for residual Jesuitry, but caught nothing—a few stoical laurel wreaths, stubby, horsey-looking pale green cupolas and beefy ionic columns. It’s a massive brick mill of a building, almost—but not quite—too big for the classical ornament handsomely plastered at quiet intervals across its gigantic façade, and you feel the weight of it press down on you majestically as you move your gaze across it in profile. It is military, and Jesuit, and American without a doubt, Mount Vernon re-imagined on the scale of a German princely abbey, with the curt, no-frills handsomeness that fills so much of the few remnants of emigrant Catholicism that remain in this nation.

The three of us, scooting my wheelchair-bound grandmother under an awkward crown of umbrellas, ducked over to the CIA’s Italian restaurant, a pleasant and cheerily incongruous marigold yellow stucco villa that stands off to one side in the crook of one the arms of the old seminary—now called Roth Hall. It looks like an Olive Garden in the off-parcel of a mall, that is, if one had ever been plopped in the landscaped Tuscan background of one of Mantegna’s Madonnas. A pleasant ironwork sign with a hanging shield displaying three old-fashioned folks fesswise indicates the place’s namesake of Caterina de Medici, the godmother of French cooking and the mythical progenitor of the fork. Inside, there are Medici palle everywhere.

Appetizers came and went, and we luxuriated in the prosciutto and the hot steam of soup as the rain fogged the world beyond our windows at the corner table, and I got to thinking of America’s recent discovery of food. Or cuisine, anyway.

Cooking, of the fancy nouvelle kind, is everywhere these days. You can’t swing a stainless-steel pot without hitting a would-be Emeril or an aspiring Rachael Ray. (Though I am told serious foodies despise Miss Rachael, a bubbly sorority gal of a food guru). Now the fusionists and nouvelle chefs have decided to go native and have given birth in New York to the extravagances of the post-modern fast food industry, where one can find oneself paying eight dollars for a take-out burger. I remember back when people used to talk about Hamburger Helper. Now, even crummy parks service restaurants in Yellowstone put words like aioli on the menu, and everyone knows what tiramisu is. The worst thing is, I actually enjoy it all. I am the worst of gourmet gourmands. But I try to eat my cake and thank God too. That’s the way to take this all in stride, rather than going too Puritan. Catholics, as a friend of mine recently said, are natural sensualists--we just like to keep it all in proportion, and properly ordered with the proper senses.

Part of me welcomes this brave new world Americans have stumbled into, the discovery that there’s more to dinner than such Lutheran delicacies as cream of mushroom casserole, and that Kraft cheese isn’t, really. Good food has always been a hallmark of Catholic civilization, everywhere from Madrid to Vienna. While it is the Protestants who call the Eucharist a meal, it is Catholicism that has an almost mystical reverence for the dinner-table and the cook-fire of the hearth. Civilization, I think, came into flower only after men and women decided they could let down their guards and eat together in peace. The age of TV dinners and fast food has done much to undo that—so I can’t help be happy when anyone wants to bring it back, and with such excellent results. Pass the lemon gnocci in herbed chicken jus, please. Or perhaps, praise God and pass the lemon gnocci, as it’s a very Catholic action, I think.

Or it might have only have that potential, still frustrated. This newfound American love of the gourmet lacks the relaxed energy of the Catholic table—except when it and my family intersects, where we bring in our culture with us like a little picnic basket. Otherwise is too popularized and not popular, too overly-serious and not solemn, too worshipful and yet devoid of divine gratitude, too mingled with the late-twentieth-century equivalents of spirituality and bodily mortification—our fixations with authenticity and weight-loss, the latent results of Yankee Puritanism rising to the surface after a long and troubled sleep. Without the church calendar, we can’t tell when to feast and when to fast, when to eat partridge and when not to, as St. Teresa put it.

(Still, perhaps the slowness of sitdown dinners may yet teach us patience—though the growth of the postmodern fast food industry I mentioned above—only in New York—may prove otherwise.)

I don’t blame the Culinary Institute for any of this. I’d love the place if I was a chef, with its enormous kitchens and warm roaring fires in the rain. To them, food needs to be serious, as art is always a serious and sometimes messy business from the inside. They are turning out artists, and every age needs that luxury as a necessity. I don’t even blame them for taking the great barracks of St. Andrew’s off the hands of the Society of Jesus; somehow the sale of this great barracks seems like a distant natural catastrophe which has lost its ability to shock us as it dissipated through time and space, like the Lisbon earthquake or Krakatoa. Everything in the sixties has that strange shipwreck quality about it when you look back at it today.

(Ironically, the CIA offers what might be the perfect Catholic nerd’s evening out—good food, church architecture, and an opportunity to complain about the post-Conciliar era).

The cooks can’t be expected to understand what happened here—but the Jesuits, even in the misty haze of 1969, purposefully lost something on a scale so grand even they must have realized the shock of what they did. I don’t know if their decision was made with gleeful anger of the past or blind, cheerful optimism, the difference between leaving your mother’s photograph behind when you move house, or flinging it angrily against the wall with a tinkle of glass. Their desire to break with the past, to fling themselves into the abyss of tomorrow made them lose not even the orthodoxy of their past but even a sort of revered private heterodoxy that still draws pilgrims to the place.

Chatting with the waitress as she handed off a steaming and welcome plate of ravioli to me, the girl explained that somewhere in the bowels of the complex, overgrown with new pseudo-classical wings, was the cemetery of the old Jesuit Fathers. They hadn’t moved the graves when they packed up shop.

There’s a certain melancholia here, like the monks interrupted at their prayer by Thomas Cromwell’s men, until you realized there was no forced dissolution here. The bones of their past were left behind like forgotten luggage. They didn’t have time even for the recent liberal past—for one of those graves is the final resting place of Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the ghostly father of so many odd and almost Gnostic turns of phrase. His disciples pop up from time to time and ask to see the old boy.

I don’t know much about Teilhard. I have a vague recollection of a character based off of him cropping up in the margins of Morris West’s Shoes of the Fisherman. I know he was silenced for his fanciful, wrongheaded and apparently rather bizarre speculations. I don’t know whether his error deserves pity, like the neurotic Luther, or scorn, like Simon Magus. He belongs to the menagerie of one of the hazier realms of history, how a Patristics scholar might look at the name of a dim second-century Marcionite he hasn’t heard of.

I have the vague idea his heresy involved Christ’s redemption somehow getting tangled up in future human evolution, finally intersecting with God at the unsettlingly-named Omega Point, a turn of phrase which reminds me nothing so much as a large blob of phosphorescent mint jelly. The few fragments I have seen of his work quoted are as impenetrably pseudo-mystical in a twentieth-century way as anything cranked out by Valentinian or one of the other scribblers of the Gnostic scriptural sausage-factory of the pre-Patristic age. It attempts to be mystical, but not mystagogical—to appear enlightened by saying very little with very much.

His spurious yoking of redemption to biology—if I understand his incorrect ideas correctly—seems less the problem of a cleric or an archaeologist than the sort of odd fringe mysticism common amid science-trusting though unscientific laymen. For a man of faith, or even a man of science—rather than a dabbler in one or both—it is an odd error to profess.

The Jesuits still circulated his scribblings sub rosa in mimeograph form and probably enjoyed soaking up the mild thrill of cloak-and-dagger posing that it entailed, while the man himself appears to have kept fairly quiet in his declining years up at St. Andrew’s, dying on Easter Sunday, 1955. Fifteen years later, the Jesuits that had ooh’d and aaah’d at his theological pyrotechnics left him, and their other predecessors, behind with the cooks.

After dinner, I made my way back to the building’s old chapel, now the principal banquet hall. I walked down the main corridor, past the glass doors of little classrooms festooned with peculiar official names making reference to donations from Wine Spectator and more exotic sources. Instead of a projector screen, the cockpit of the classroom looks like a TV stage kitchen, bright with cheery Italian tile and the warmth of the hearth. Despite the clerical negligence that came out of this, the place is pleasant and even likeable. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to study here, to be a chef. On the other side, glass windows look up onto one of the complex’s numerous restaurant kitchens. A young dark-haired girl in a toque is cutting out pastry slabs from patterns to create an extravagantly medieval pastry in the shape of a castle. Beyond, windows look onto a grey classical cloister, strangely wintery on this humid day.

And the chapel. Over the door is an elaborate coat of arms, perhaps that of the Farquharson who the deconsecrated oratory is now named for. It’s a touch of chivalric levity which I can’t help liking despite the holy image it doubtlessly replaced. Inside, it’s a beautiful space from the waist up, ignoring the prosaic, broken tangle of round tables that littler the nave floor. It’s a memory of that stretch of time a hundred years ago when the world of American Catholicism was not yet monolithically Gothic—when domed Polish basilicas and the fluted pillars of Renaissance Rome were hallmarks of a more complex landscape, artistically and ethnically. Here, the foamy white of beaux-arts baroque, splashed with scarlet and gold, blends with the brick-and-stone colonial America of the exterior.

The high altar is missing, and a banquet table stands now in the empty apse, still gorgeously gilded. Side chapels are now little empty niches filled with spare tables. It is all too clean, too neat and tidy, too well-restored to be melancholy like a ruin. The contrast feels at gut level more baffling than blasphemous. Culinary iconography—a gilded panoply of forks and knives en saltire and busts of patrons and famous chefs—fills in the gaps behind where the altar might have stood. It might have seemed witty anywhere else. But here, in contrast with stained-glass angels and gilded saints, the contrast is strange—and almost unsettling as your eye moves up the pillars, to see gilded mosaics of very different knives and forks, the spears and pincers of the Passion roosting in the vaults above.

Melchisedek is there, like I said, and Ignatius, in black stained glass robes, kneels before a pontiff in a gorgeous Renaissance chamber, as if the hundred rooms of the college were still filled with future SJs. Nobody knew enough Latin to scrape down the slogans of Cibus viatorum and Panis angelicus that stand, with a certain unsettling irony, in the apse. But the apse is empty. You can’t undo what happened in the sixties here. To demand its return after a fair-and-square deal would be futile, and somehow it seems impossible to blame the chefs for this oversight, when there were theologians who knew better to give them this place, once upon a time. It’s an auditorium that looks like a church—while had the Jesuits remained, it might have become a church that looked like an auditorium. But we will never know—and Providence has, for whateve reason, chosen another future for the place.

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