An Historical Glimpse on the Passionist Diet and the Brother Training Program: “Nutrition and the Passionist Brother”

Home / An Historical Glimpse on the Passionist Diet and the Brother Training Program: “Nutrition and the Passionist Brother”

Brother Simon West, C.P.

Introduction: The name of Passionist Brother Simon West (1905-1975) of St. Paul of the Cross Province has been long associated with the religious formation of Passionist brothers. A key component of their training was food preparation for those priests and brothers who lived in the monastery. While much has been written about spiritual formation of seminarians, little attention has been paid to the training program for Passionist brothers. The name of Brother Simon West still can bring about an abundance of varied stories from those Passionist brothers who came under his supervision during the 1950s and 1960s. Consensus seems to be that he knew his craft but could, at times, be a task-master. Later, from the early 1970s until his death, he was a receptionist at the front door of the Passionist monastery in Jamaica, New York. There, consensus is that his participation in the charismatic prayer movement allowed a more mellow side to emerge. If you might be interested in the vocation, story read “I Knelt Alone” by Brother Simon West, C.P. in Why I Became A Brother, Rev. George L. Kane, editor (Newman Press, 1954): 111-121.

The following excerpt was the last installment of three parts published by The Passionist. Edited by Holy Cross Province, the selection below was published in Volume 4 (June 1951): 116-121. One might keep in mind Brother Simon West’s overall care for planning and detail in food preparation. First, equal attention is given to the science of actual cooking and the health value of the foods themselves. Second, one gains an all important glimpse into the mid-twentieth century link between spirituality of a Passionist brother and their ministry of internal service to the overall Passionist community. Third, keep in mind that Passionist brothers were also tailors, sandal makers, maintenance men, and took care of the laundry. Fourth and finally, since in the mid 1960s the process of Passionist brother formation has developed to the point where they now participate in the wide variety of Passionist administrative and preaching apostolates. Nevertheless, it is important to call to mind this important segment of Passionist brothers’ history. Editor: Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

The health of a community and consequently its happiness is, to a great extent, in the hands of the Brother Cook. Almost everyone has been conscious of this fact throughout the years. But now through the medium of modern nutrition the importance of the fact is considerably magnified. Yes, there is more involved in the process of feeding the brethren than just satisfying the “eye and stomach.” The cook is the protector and dispenser of the precious nutritional elements contained in the food he works with. In view of this serious responsibility it is well that those in charge of our food service, whether religious or lay, be well informed in this matter.

The Brothers must not only keep the health of the brethren at heart, but they must also keep a diligent watch over the goods of the monastery. In the Holy Rule we read:

“Let them (Brothers) have a diligent care over the property of the Congregation and consider it as belonging to God. Let them remember that it is placed under their care and that, if through their fault, it be either destroyed or deteriorated, they will have to render to God a severe account for it.” Ch. XX.169. The Brother is to see that nothing is destroyed or deteriorated. This can easily happen in the preparation of foodstuffs which are so delicate and perishable. Modern nutrition points out that through the years improper preparation of foods has resulted in the loss of their nutritive value and consequent deterioration because of that loss. It is well then to see what the Passionist Brothers’ role is in regard to applying better nutritional practices to the meal preparation. This necessitates descending to details, but that need not detract from the importance of the matter at hand. St. Paul of the Cross did not hesitate to stoop to details concerning the serious problem of feeding his religious.

Properly Prepared Foods

One of the main concerns of our Holy Founder was that the foods served the brethren be “properly prepared.” In the article “Nutrition and the Passionist Diet,” it was stated that requisite nourishment is more dependent upon proper preparation than upon any other factor. At the same time it was also said that, considered in the light of present-day nutritional practices, our food preparation, especially vegetables, has been at fault and there is room for improvement. Let us see why this is so.

Faulty Preparation

According to present high standards of nutrition, faulty food preparation is not due to just one isolated mistake. It comprises a group of errors anyone of which can adversely effect the value of the food. The following list of common errors pertains mostly to fresh produce because of its delicate composition.

  1. Improper storage. All perishable food lose appreciable amounts of food value through lack of sufficient refrigeration.
  2. Buying too large quantities of perishable items even though they are kept under good refrigeration. Produce begins to deteriorate from the moment it is taken from the soil.
  3. Lack of sufficient care in immediate preparation of foods for cooking. The deposit of mineral salts found directly beneath the skin of certain vegetables, especially potatoes and carrots, is lost when too much is removed by peeling. To allow vegetables to soak in water longer than is necessary to wash them, is likewise injurious for it tends to dissolve out some of the nutrients.
  4. Incorrect methods of cooking.
  5. Cooking in excessive amounts of water and then discarding the water containing a goodly portion of the water-soluble nutrients.
  6. Using baking soda (bi-carb) in cooking water to keep the color in green vegetables.
  7. Overcooking or cooking beyond doneness stage. This is very detrimental to foods.
  8. Having vegetables cooked considerably ahead of the serving time. It is more harmful still if they are allowed to stand in the water or receive excessive heat to keep them hot.

These are some of the errors in food preparation, particularly vegetables, that have been characteristic of American cooking, including our own, until the advent of our present-day nutritional standards.

Properly Prepared Foods

An eminent authority in the field of nutrition has this to say about food preparation: “Good food preparation conserves the nutritive value of the food, increasing its digestibility, develops and enhances its flavor and palatability, increases or at least does not detract from the attractiveness of its original color, form and texture, and frees food from injurious organisms and substances.” At first glance the definition seems to be made up of separate divisions. But on close analysis this is not found to be so. The first phrase, “conserves the nutritive value of the food,” is the substance of the definition and all that follows is but an enlargement of the same. Because when a food is so prepared that there is a minimum loss of the nutritive value, that food will fulfill all the other aspects of the requirements for “good preparation.”

For example, a food so prepared will retain much of its original color, form, and texture; its flavor and palatability will be enhanced; and injurious organisms and substances will be satisfactorily removed. Furthermore this will serve to increase the digestibility of the food. The body’s efficiency in utilizing the nutrients supplied to it, is largely determined by the thoroughness with which it digests its food. Good digestion of food is intimately connected with the appearance and taste of the food. But appearance and taste can be deceptive. By this is meant that it is quite possible to serve attractive and palatable foods that have lost a lot of their nutritional value. This can be done by so-called artificial means; using well-seasoned sauces or garnishes and by retaining the green color through the use of baking soda. Therefore good appearance and taste do not necessarily mean foods that will provide maximum nourishment; but nutritionally-good foods will always be attractive and palatable, presuming of course that the cook gives the necessary attention to the seasoning of the food.

Rules For Proper Preparation

Technical knowledge is not a requisite in order that a cook may serve nutritious food. It is also evident that the elimination of the errors listed above demands no exceptional ability on his part. The same holds true for applying the rules of “proper preparation” to the meal service.

  1. Cook vegetables by one of the following methods which are listed according to their importance.
    1. Steam pressure cooker
    2. In vapor (over water) in a double boiler with a perforated insert.
    3. In as little water as possible so there will be very little liquid remaining after the food is cooked.
  2. Cook foods just to the doneness stage. Drain and keep hot.
  3. Cook as close to serving time as possible.
  4. Save liquor from vegetables that do not have a sharp flavor, nor the color of which would prohibit using the liquor in stock, soups, or sauces.
  5. Keep cooking utensils well covered during cooking process. Cooking in presence of oxygen has harmful effect on some nutrients.
  6. Never add baking soda (bi-carb) to vegetables to keep them green. Some vitamins are acid in their makeup and the alkali neutralizes the vitamins.
  7. For flavor and economy cook roasts at low temperatures (280 degrees) for a longer period of time than it takes at higher temperatures. This decreases shrinkage and preserves flavor. High temperature toughens protein as is observed in the overcooked egg white.

Surprising as it may seem one has only to follow these simple rules in order to produce food which will retain the maximum amount of nutritive value. However, even after these rules have been faithfully applied the Brother Cook is still confronted with the problem of getting the Brethren to eat this nutritious food which be has prepared. The solution of this problem lies in the planning of well-balanced food combinations the importance of which has come to light in recent years.

Balanced Meals

Meals are said to be well-balanced when they provide all the nutritive elements needed for requisite nourishment in correct proportions. The elements referred to are protein (meat, fish, eggs, cheese); carbohydrates (starches and sugar); fats (butter, oils, meat fats, fried foods); vitamins, mineral salts, and fiber (lighter vegetables, fresh fruits, salads, cole slaw, milk, and whole grains). All this may seem to be very technical and difficult to apply but really it is not. Here is the reason. Protein foods being the nucleus of our meals takes care of itself in our diet. All one has to do then is to see that there is a correct proportion between the starchy foods and the lighter vegetables, and the fats. The error frequently made in the past was to serve meals that contained too much starch or fat or both. This mistake is easily corrected by giving it just a little thought.

  1. Become acquainted with the starchy foods: rice, noodles, macaroni, dried legumes, corn, potatoes and the like.
  2. Do not use two of these at the same meal, but combine one with a lighter vegetable served without a thickened sauce.
  3. Keep the salads light. If they are consistently heavy and rich, they defeat their purpose.
  4. Serve citrus fruits frequently.
  5. Use only moderate amounts of fried and fatty foods. A little fat goes a long way. Too much taxes the digestive system.

Balanced meals are as simple as that, but the effects are manifold because they assure requisite nourishment for all.

Attractive Meals

The final touch to “properly-prepared” food and “well-balanced” meals is to have them as attractive as possible. The planning of attractive food combinations with their proper service not only goes to make an enjoyable meal but it is also an essential part of a well-ordered nutritional policy. It is also true that attractiveness and the aroma of foods is an aid to good digestion which in turn is necessary for the utilization of the nutritional elements furnished by the food. To increase the attractiveness and effectiveness of foods:

  1. Have a variety in color and form of foods.
  2. Have a good balance between soft and solid foods.
  3. Do not repeat the same food in a meal such as tomato soup and tomato salad.
  4. Do not serve more than one sharp-flavored food at a meal; this applies particularly to the cabbage family.
  5. Avoid monotony of color in any one meal.
  6. Do not use the same food constantly from day to day nor serve certain foods on specific days of the week.
  7. Always serve hot things “hot” and cold things “cold.”

To sum up what has been said: in order to consistently serve meals that will provide the nourishment conducive to normal health and economically at the same time to realize the maximum on the merchandise purchased, the foodstuffs must be “properly prepared,” “well balanced,” and “attractively combined.” The first two requirements have to do with the scientific and the latter with the artistic in food service.


Modern nutrition has greatly elevated meal preparation from the realm of a possible monotonous routine to that of an art and science. This should serve to encourage the Brother Cook or the Supervisor if the cook happens to be a layman. It is well to keep in mind that no other office offers such opportunity for creative ability. It need only be remarked that one does not have to resort to extravagance in order to exercise this ability. Just the opposite is true.

The life of a Passionist Brother is truly a hidden life, which demands a spirit of deep faith. This is particularly applicable to the Brother Cook who is striving day after day to protect the health of the brethren by faithfully applying the sound principles of nutrition to his work. The nervous tension associated with kitchen management added to the physical strain makes this task a difficult one. There is bound to be subjective criticism of foods and meals because experience proves it is impossible to please everyone, no matter how nutritious and appealing the meals are. The more knowledge one has of his work and the more knowledge [sic], the less danger there is for discouragement because of unfounded criticisms. He is certain before God that he is not only doing his very best, but his best is founded on the rock of solid principles of good nutrition. This should be a source of peace and joy in God’s service.

There is no better way to conclude this article than to repeat the graphic words of our Holy Founder himself ; — “Don’t be surprised that I stoop to these details: God makes me keep the thing at heart. Believe me, from the maintenance of vigor, particularly among young people, follows an augmentation of the spirit of observance, fervor, etc . . . . I have acquired thence the firm certitude that if religious, — if not all, at least the majority, — don’t receive nourishment proportioned to their need, (according to the rules) with discretion, strong temptations come to them, religious life becomes a burden and engenders weariness and melancholy. . . . God inspires me to insist on this point: lose health, lose the observance; that is why I have requisite nourishment given them. Take good care of the health of the young; it is ruined very quickly.”

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