Monday 20 April 2015

Food for Thought

"Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine. Tu das iis escam eorum in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione tua. Miserere nostri te quaesumus Domine, tuisque donis quae de tua benignitate sumus percepturi, benedicito per Christum Dominum nostrum"

Last Thursday night I was invited [not me personally, it was open to all] to attend a Panel Discussion in Trinity College Dublin "Are Irish universities committed to enlightenment ideals? Recent and forthcoming developments in Irish higher education policy and legislation".  With such luminaries as Tom Boland the CEO of the HEA (Higher Education Authority), Senator Sean Barrett, Steve "blogger" Hedley, Mary "author" Gallagher, and Maria "maker" Slowey to speak, I was not required to open my gob . . . except at 'Commons' the meal consumed by the Fellows and Scholars [and the Provost if he wants] every evening in the oak-panelled formal dining hall [R: the Fellows get a table cloth] of the college.
I have accordingly top-and-tailed this piece with the formal Latin grace that is intoned from a lectern before and after the meal. The grace is spoken by the Scholar-of-the-day and this is now more likely to be an astrophysicist than an expert on Cicero. Listening to some youngster's poorly articulated mangling of the language of scholarship was a penance to the Professor of Greek and the other old dudes who had actually learned Latin at some stage.  In recent years the grace has been taken in hand by Trinity office-holder called the Public Orator, so that the ritual words have now taken on a distinctly Italian, moderately sexy, cadence, which is surely an improvement.

The food is another matter.  It doesn't seem to have changed in the 40, 30, 20, 10 years since I was last at the Commons trough - I go about twice a decade. You get three courses - soup, meat-and-two-veg, pudding - and today's chefs probably spend more time on sourcing ingredients but are still required to slap down 200 covers and have everyone out within the hour.  I gather that the menu was:
Soup: Sweet potato & fresh coriander
Main Course: Chicken coq au vin
Potatoes: Creamed potatoes; Vegetables:Peas
Dessert: Rhubarb pie with fresh cream
But the soup might have been asparagus, or potato, or split pea.  It was tasty but not distinctive. The menu was just like what I used to avoid at lunchtime in the Staff Dining Room in the first job I had in a British university.  I used to watch in amazement as my colleagues trenchered through a gluten-with-everything meal every weekday lunchtime and wondered how they managed to stay awake during the afternoon . . . maybe they didn't.  I certainly nodded off for part of the first presentation at the symposium on Thursday - only for a couple of minutes but my circulation could not cope with 'alert' and 'digest' simultaneously.

If that sounds like carping ingratitude, it's not: because the food is peripheral to the process.  The institution is what it says on the label - Commons: the Provost, Fellows and Scholars come together every day - the meal is midday on the weekends or 18.15 M-F.  This trinity is what runs Trinity! The legal name of the College is “the Provost, Fellows, Foundation Scholars and the other members of Board, of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin”.  The scholars are the brightest of the bright and shoulder the gown if they can get a First Class Honours mark in a special exam in their field taken during their second year in college.  This entitles them to rent-free rooms in college and all their meals for a period of five years, so it can start them off on a post-graduate career in the olde Alma Mater. It's bloody hard work to make the grade unless you are a walking genius. The meal includes, on demand, a half-pint tankard of Guinness.  Likewise the Fellows are regular teaching Faculty who have excelled in scholarship in their field of research.  Excelled in scholarship is much more than sitting at your desk thinking great thoughts - you will have published, each year for several years, two or three or six peer-reviewed scientific papers in prestigious journals.  Or you might have written the definitive biography of Wittgenstein, or a history of the Plantations of King's County, or discovered a new planet.  All these endeavours will have required mental effort that would melt your brain or mine.  Fellows also get free food but as they are no longer starveling students, and as the norm is to have a family to go home to, not many of them turn up to meet each other at the top table.

The point of the meal in common is that you can meet all the people in the college community who have made a commitment to a life in their heads. The Professor of French can find common ground with the latest hot hot-dog nanotechnologist and it is to be hoped that fruitful collaborations are born in the discussions over the soup. It's the same among the Scholars who get to meet a lot of other sharp young people and solve the problems of the world and compare notes about their teachers. You may declare that this is an elitist anachronism, and you would be right, but you would be wrong to call it a Bad Thing

‘Tibi laus, tibi honor, tibi gloria, O beata et gloriosa Trinitas.  Sit nomen Domini benedictum et nunc et in perpetuum.  Laudamus te, benignissime Pater, pro serenissimis, regina Elizabetha hujus Collegii conditrice,  Jacobo ejusdem munificentissimo auctore,  Carolo conservatore, caeterisque benefactoribus nostris, rogantes te, ut his tuis donis recte et ad tuam gloriam utentes in hoc saeculo, te una cum fidelibus in futuro feliciter perfruamur, per Christum Dominum nostrum.’

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