With cooks like Leah Chase in his parish family, Edmundite Father Michael Jacques says he’s happy to yield to the pros when it comes to one particular dish.
“I have no idea how to make gumbo – none. My thinking is there are too many great gumbo cooks in this city and in this parish for me to cook it,” said Father Jacques, a native of Maine and culinary school-trained cook who has prepared his own meals in the St. Peter Claver rectory since becoming pastor in 1984.
“For me the joy of cooking is taking all the ingredients we have and putting them together, sometimes on instinct, sometimes from a recipe,” Father Jacques said. “If I’m going to make a sherried crab bisque, you’ve got to make the roux, you have to make the sauce, you have to sift it out – all those steps. That’s what I like about cooking – seeing it from the beginning and then seeing it come to an end.”
Born the youngest in a French-speaking family of eight children, Father Jacques was raised on a farm in the northern Maine hamlet of Caribou. His mother, who was widowed when Father Jacques was just 2, worked as a cook and housekeeper in the rectory of Caribou’s English-speaking Catholic church.
“My mom was a wonderful, wonderful cook,” he said, recalling two childhood favorites: his mother’s perfectly crusted apple pie and chicken pot pie. Luckily, the youngster was allowed full run of the kitchen and became adept at cooking French-style “cassoulets” – one dish meals in which the meat or poultry was slowly cooked, together with fresh vegetables from the Jacques’ expansive kitchen garden.
“My mother churned butter every Saturday, my aunts did the eggs and we never bought milk because my uncles (had cows),” Father Jacques said. “Every Saturday was ‘cooking day. All the bread was baked that day; all the pies, all the cakes, all the pastries were baked for the whole week. We never, ever bought anything like that from the store. It was always cooked at home. I didn’t have Oreos until I was 19.”
Father Jacques entered the Society of St. Edmund after graduating from high school, spending 14 years as a religious brother at the Edmundites’ seminary in Mystic, Conn.
“The brothers were domestics – we took care of the house, we took care of the gardens, we took care of the priests who were there. That was our role as brothers,” he said. “I was sent to the kitchen,” said Father Jacques, who was deployed to culinary school to hone his skills.
“I loved cooking but I had a lot of energy, so my director said, ‘You have too much energy to stay in the kitchen. You need to look at some other things,’” said Father Jacques, who was sent to Trinity College and St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt., to earn his degree in social work and who subsequently was assigned as director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Mobile, specializing in adolescent counseling.
After discerning a call to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, he entered the Edmundites’ Toronto seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1982. He became pastor of St. Peter Claver in 1984, joining the local influx of Edmundites that also ministered at St. Philip the Apostle and St. Joseph the Worker parishes, and established Bishop Perry Middle School.
“We have wonderful cooks in this parish. They are Creole cooks, so we have wonderful panéed meats, seafood and vegetables,” said Father Jacques, who has learned from his flock the steps to making the best panéed meat: pound out the meat, briefly sauté it, dip it in egg, dredge it in seasoned French bread crumbs and lightly fry it before topping with a little shrimp or crab.
On Lenten Fridays, Father Jacques uses Worcestershire sauce – instead of chicken stock – to ratchet up the flavor of oyster stew. He also makes a lot of dishes using his “favorite seafood besides lobster” – crab.
“It’s hard to mess up crabmeat,” he said, naming his favorite crab-based dish, Coquille St. Jacques.
“What makes it is the Madeira wine, rather than sweet sherry. It has a unique flavor,” he said.
Another crabmeat-based dish involves removing almost all of the pulp from an avocado half, stuffing it with sherry-infused crabmeat and baking it.
“You serve it warm. It makes a very nice appetizer,” Father Jacques said. “You leave just enough of the avocado inside to get that nutty flavor.”
Now 64, the priest still thinks back to his boyhood in Maine, where cellar shelves were lined with vegetables and fruits canned by his mother and autumns were spent stockpiling food for the long winter. Much like their Cajun cousins in southwestern Louisiana, the Jacques and their neighbors would make blood sausage out of slaughtered pigs and pluck and smoke dozens of chickens. Two crock-pots contained a ready supply of brined scallions and salted pork to season just about every dish.
Father Jacques does confess to having had a bit of culture shock upon his arrival to the South, when he got wind of a certain stringy vegetable.
“I had never heard of okra until I came down here,” he chuckled. “I thought it was a fish!”