Catholic Herald Staff
“I’m gonna introduce you to something most people turn their noses up at,” Fr. Mike McLain said, wielding a small, round pizza cutter.
He sliced into a thin-crust, pickles-and-pepperoni pizza, crisscrossing the melted mozzarella with ease.
Food, he continued while scooping up a square, is the “cornerstone of relationships” and central to Scripture. From the Garden of Eden to the wedding at Cana, “It’s all about food.”
And that includes pizza.
Pickles and pepperoni, also known as the Merrill pizza, is so named because a young resident of the Lincoln County city once requested the combination.
The pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, Merrill, Fr. McLain has constructed many a Merrill pizza, and countless other combinations as well. One of the most memorable: A liver-and-onions pizza, which he made for a fellow priest during a party.
“He’s the only one who ate it,” added Fr. McLain.
He learned the art of pizza-making from his mother.
“I’ve been making pizzas since I was 7 years of age in Southside Chicago,” he said. Of Scottish heritage himself, Fr. McLain can whip up pizzas, pierogi and soda bread like a native of Italy, Poland and Ireland, respectively, because the women in his poor, ethnic neighborhood all shared recipes.
Growing up, his family ate a lot of pizza because it was economical, he said. After he and his wife left for Missouri in the 1970s — Fr. McLain is a second-vocation priest — he continued the tradition, making pizzas for neighbors, family and friends.
Before he entered the seminary, Fr. McLain lived in Kansas City, Mo., with his wife, son and daughter. He worked as a traveling salesman, an insurance salesman and a waiter, and he sees many parallels between his life of service then, and his life of service now. He likes to please people.
“I think it really ties in with what I try to do as a priest,” he said.
After his wife died in 2001, Fr. McLain felt called to the priesthood. His diocese in Missouri considered him too old, so he went to the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners and was accepted into the Diocese of Superior in 2002.
That’s where his pizza-making really picked up, and the pace hasn’t slackened. He’s made them in Ireland, Mexico, 12 U.S. states and all around the Diocese of Superior. He once assembled 32 pizzas for a vocations night at the seminary. And, as it happens, he’s made pizzas in homes all over Merrill.
“Food and relationships” is Fr. McLain’s mantra and his ministry. He’s not the type to go into the streets and evangelize, he said. Instead, he invites people of all faiths to make an appointment with him, and he goes to work in the heart of their homes.
“I just make pizzas at their place,” he said. “Where does everybody gather? In the kitchen.”
Many families have never had a Catholic priest in their home, he observed, so “it creates a bit of a reputation.”
It’s also an opportunity to gather, break bread together and bond in a comfortable environment.
He’ll try almost any topping, even that most controversial ingredient — the tiny, salty fish.
“I like anchovies,” he said. “You just have to acquire a taste for them.”
But, he draws the line at sardines. Too stinky.
“I will never, ever make a pizza with sardines again,” he vowed. “I had to evacuate the church.”
Fr. McLain may be best known for his pizzas, but his cooking and baking talents are not limited to one specialty. He enjoys introducing families to new foods — many people haven’t tried pierogi or fondue, he’s learned — and he also bakes breads, barbeques ribs and makes sweets.
“I’m working on perfecting my chocolate ganache,” he added.
A diabetic, the priest is watched by his doctor, who is also a parishioner. He says his conscience is clear, however, because he doesn’t eat his baked goods — he gives them away.
Students and staff at St. Francis Xavier School are some of the lucky recipients of his pizza; he likes to test new toppings on the teachers, his “guinea pigs,” and throw pizza parties after a good fundraising drive.
He’s cooked for many others in the diocese as well; Bishop Peter Christensen is “one of the few people in the diocese” who hasn’t eaten his pizza, he said.
Fr. McLain is also a great admirer of the cooking talents of another diocesan priest, Fr. Andrew Ricci, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior.
“He is an excellent pasta cook,” Fr. McLain said. “He’s the pasta priest. I’m the pizza priest.”