Story and Photos By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
As a youngster growing up in Lafayette, Father Samuel Fontana thought nothing of taking a pair scissors to his backyard to snip fresh herbs to throw into a simmering pot, or of breaking down rabbits, doves and ducks for stewing after a hunting expedition.
Inside young Sam’s Cajun-Sicilian household, there were rigid ideas about what constituted a “shrimp gumbo” (a roux-less masterpiece made with shrimp stock, no meat and thickened with okra) versus a “seafood gumbo” (cooked in a stock of small crabs and fish heads).
“We would always poach eggs in gumbo, which is kind of a controversial thing,” smiled Father Fontana, 32, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette whose current assignment is assistant dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington. “To this day, if I have some leftover gumbo broth, I’ll poach three eggs and I have a meal.”
Father Fontana’s formative kitchen experiences engaged all of his senses, whether it was waking on Saturdays at the crack of dawn to the smell of his father’s gumbo, or rolling out dough on Sunday mornings, letting the dough rise during Mass and returning home to cut out bicuits.
Meatless can be hearty
“All of family life revolved around the kitchen,” said Father Fontana, a graduate of Lafayette public schools who discerned a vocation to the priesthood in high school and during his two years at his current home of St. Joseph Seminary College.
Although fed primarily by staff cooks during his graduate years at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, Father Fontana and his fellow Louisiana compatriots would seek out every opportunity to cook for special events and during school breaks, when they had the kitchen all to themselves.
“To me, one of the poverties about nine years in seminary was living in an institution – you don’t cook for yourself,” Father Fontana lamented. “(During break time) I taught a lot of guys from Kansas how to cook gumbo. We would simmer lots of chicken feet to make chicken stock and bake gingerbread using the recipe on the back of the can of Steen Cane Syrup.”
Food builds community
Following his 2014 ordination to the priesthood, Father Fontana brought his strong ideas about “real food” – cooking from scratch with mostly fresh ingredients – to a three-year stint as associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Rayne, Louisiana.
He immediately set out to overhaul the parish’s St. Joseph’s altar offerings, instituting a “real food” rule of hands-on-only cooking and baking. Father Fontana, who finally had a kitchen at his disposal, harvested a bumper crop of basil from his rectory garden to make 15 quarts of freezable pesto, and solicited donations from local bakeries to make bread balls and bread crumbs for the altar. He also ordered 10 pounds of wheat flour from a farm in Washington State.
“I got the eighth graders to help me make 200 loaves of bread in the school cafeteria,” Father Fontana recalled. “Store-bought stuff, readymade stuff kind of defeats the whole purpose of the feast day. People love to cook! People love food! People love sharing food! Part of building parish community is recognizing that,” he said. “If you’re going to get a bunch of people together (for a parish event), you need to pray and you also need to eat,” he added. “To me, these things are fundamental building blocks of community, and for food to be a building block, for food to be something substantial, it needs to be real food, which means real work needs to go into it.”
Nevertheless, Father Fontana’s parishioners often would register surprise upon spotting him at the grocery store.
“People were kind of shocked that the priest that they saw on Sunday was in line at Piggly Wiggly buying regular food,” he said. “But I don’t want (others) to cook for me, because cooking is something I enjoy.”
Exercising his green thumb
Although the priest’s current assignment at St. Joseph Seminary College, which includes teaching philosophy and mentoring freshmen, has him once again being fed by other hands, Father Fontana maintains his close connections to food and cooking by caring for the seminary garden. He regularly delivers any surplus produce, including fresh herbs, greens, radishes, onions, eggplants and peppers, to the Carmelite Sisters who live down the road.
“To me, gardening and cooking go hand-in-hand – anyone who is a gardener is also a cook; that’s almost universally true in Louisiana,” said Father Fontana, insisting that Lent is an ideal time to take food more – not less – seriously. Fasting doesn’t mean “not eating” – the same way silence doesn’t merely mean “being quiet,” he said.
“‘Silence’ means excluding the bad noise so you can really listen to the right voices, to the beautiful music,” he said. “The desert fathers in the early monastics always equate silence with manual work – the two go hand-in-hand. You couldn’t pray if you weren’t doing something. So, I think work in the kitchen – spending one or two hours preparing a meal from scratch – is a great Lenten practice. It’s a practice of silence.”
Therefore, he added, “I would hope that during Lent people would take more time with their food and think more about their food, rather than just picking up some shrimp po-boys on the fly.”
Meatless staples prepared year-round by Father Fontana include a simple lentil soup made with French lentils (which maintain their integrity better than their brown counterparts). He recommends teaming this soup with soda bread, a heavy bread made with buttermilk, whole wheat flour and wheat germ. Soda bread is traditionally cooked in a pot and has a cruchy crust.
“Soda bread is a quick bread, Father Fontana said. “It’s the kind of bread you can make in a campfire.”
During Lent, Father Fontana challenges home cooks who might not normally eat sardines right out of the can to entertain making a pasta sauce with them, preferably with the help of a mid- to high-priced brand of sardines.
“You get what you pay for,” Father Fontana said. “Sardines are a powerfully healthy food. They break down and form a very rich, meaty sauce. It doesn’t taste ‘fishy’ but it tastes like fish.”
Omelets and frittatas – the backbone of many-a-Sunday-brunch in Father Fontana’s hometown of Lafayette – also make a wonderfully hearty, all-in-one Lenten meal, he said. Leftover crawfish boil potatoes, browned with some chopped onions, make this dish extra satisfying.
“Make a potato omelet in the morning, and then eat it cold for lunch,” Father Fontana advised. “Everyone needs to know how to make an omelet!”
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