Father Bill John Melançon, Cajun Cook in Louisiana
“We have many food festivals, which include even alligator and crawfish festivals.”
Cheerful, jolly and upbeat, Father Bill John Melançon, pastor at St. Rita Catholic Church in St. Martinville, Louisiana, is passionate about his faith — but he is also passionate about cooking. This is not surprising, since he grew up in a Catholic-dense part of Louisiana where cooking and food are all part of everyday life.
“I was born in St. Martinville and grew up near the village of Loreauville,” he said. “Ours was a family of sharecroppers and we were very Catholic. Actually, the whole area was mostly Catholic. I wanted to be a priest because I fell in love with God when I was 6 years old!”
After he went to a secular college in Lafayette, Louisiana, he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Lafayette and entered St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana. “But becoming a parish priest was not a straight shot,” he said. He studied theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He then left the seminary and worked as a director of religious education, a salesman, and a Catholic elementary school teacher.
Then in 1989, he entered the Discalced Carmelite Order as a friar. Formation for the religious life began in Washington, D.C. and then he headed to novitiate in Holy Hill, Wisconsin. He then returned to Washington, D.C. as a student friar. “Then, one morning, in the month of March 1992,” he said, “I woke up from sleep and although I was happy in the monastery as a friar, it was placed on my heart that I had to return to Louisiana.”
The bishop of Lafayette accepted his return and sent him to Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland to complete his theology and pastoral studies. “I was there for one year,” he said, “and my classes at Catholic University made for a long commute and a bit of stress.” He was ordained a transitional deacon at the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in May of 1993. In November of 1993 he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana.
Of course, his Catholic family, especially his parents, were happy for him and supported him. They had no regrets about his decision to become a parish priest.
Thanks to his Louisiana upbringing, Father Melançon attributes his mother’s cooking flair for his current passion for baking and making gumbo and jambalaya. “Everywhere I went around in Louisiana,” he said, “I would always come home and watch my mom cook.” When he was in the monastery, his religious brothers asked him to whip up Louisiana dishes, like the gumbos he knew so well. When asked there to be in charge of cooking for 70 volunteers, he learned later that everyone loved the meal. “That’s when my cooking life and cooking for large numbers of people really took off,” he said.
Father Melançon stressed that locals not only love to cook and eat, but they cherish spending time with each other. “It is community building around food,” he said. “It is a good outreach for Catholics and others in our community. I cook for them sometimes, and for fundraisers. A couple of times an elementary school called and asked that I cook a seven-course dinner which they would auction off. We have many food festivals, which include even alligator and crawfish festivals.”
Now at St. Rita’s, he notes that the parish does not have a professional kitchen, so, for example, each week during Lent he made bean soup, split pea soup, or some other soup in his home kitchen and brought those to the parish in jars so they could share a meal after fasting on Fridays. “The parishioners knew it came from my kitchen and that I lovingly prepared the soups for them.” The soups were then transferred to pint-size containers and that way parishioners could take the soup home or stay and eat the soups on church grounds.
Not surprisingly, Father Melançon has developed a culinary reputation, and has become noted for what he produces, particularly the baked goods and treats based on figs, which include cakes, pies, and cookies, and even fig ice cream. But he notes that his fig cookies would put the national brands to shame, saying, “My fig cookies are much moister and more flavorful!”
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Figue Gâteau-de-Sirop (Syrup Cake with Fig)
A traditional dessert, it has been preserved in the Acadian (Cajun) culture of south Louisiana. Moist and dense, it is a favorite among many. Although great alone, it can be served warm accompanied with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped topping. It can be glazed with just a thin layer of icing made of confectioner’s powdered sugar, lemon juice and water.
- 1 pint canned figs in syrup (mash figs) or I pound dried figs and one cup honey substitute
- 5 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup shortening or cooking oil
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugarcane syrup or molasses
- 3 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Optional: 1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
In large bowl, cream together vanilla, shortening (or oil), sugar, and syrup. In a second bowl combine flour, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. In a pot bring water to a boil and add baking soda. In the larger bowl, combine the flour mixture with the sugar/syrup mixture. Add mashed figs to larger bowl.
Gradually add the water/baking soda solution. The optional pecans may be added. Combine all ingredients until well blended. Figs and pecans will be seen as lumps. Pour batter into the baking pan.
Bake until brown and firm, approximately 35 too 40 minutes.