SCARBOROUGH — Food is love, so they say. Never has that connection been more evident than in the Mercer household.

For the Rev. Dan Mercer, associate chaplain at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, connecting food and love has become an important part of his life’s mission. Over the past two decades or so, Mercer, 54, has fostered or adopted – and fed – 13 boys.

Some of the boys Mercer met on the job at the juvenile detention facility and kept in touch with over the years until it seemed only natural that they become a part of the family he was creating. But most were placed in his care after he became a single foster parent. The children all had “issues” and problems not easily fixed, but Mercer made dealing with those problems a little easier by giving the boys a place to belong.

“I got tired of hearing all the kids saying, ‘No one wants me. There’s nowhere for me to go,’ ” Mercer said.

Mercer loves to cook, so food has been a notably important part of the family dynamic, especially a rich, Sunday-worthy dish Mercer makes called “Champagne Chicken.” The dish originated at Maggie’s, a restaurant in Westminster, Maryland, where Mercer first tried it as a teenager 40 years ago. It consists of medallions of brined chicken sauteed with carrots and mushrooms and covered in a sherried cream sauce. Mercer substitutes sherry for the Champagne because he thinks it gives the dish a sweeter, more full-bodied flavor, but the whole family still refers to it as Champagne Chicken. Usually with a sigh.

If Mercer is trying to get the family together and his sons say they’re too busy or they aren’t feeling well, all he has to do is say that he’s making Champagne Chicken, and they fly home to the nest.

“It’s the meal that brings us all together,” said Rob Mercer, 36, the second oldest. (The children now range in age from 22 to 40.) “It doesn’t matter where any of us are at any point in our lives. If we’re around, we’ll be here for Champagne Chicken.”

Mercer lives in a four-bedroom house on Church Street, and over the years has had as many as five boys under his roof at the same time. One year, he recalls, he had two high school seniors and three juniors living with him at the same time, and all of them took driver’s ed using Mercer’s only car. When they were done, he had to buy a new car.

“Sometimes I had to go to jail just to get some peace and quiet,” he joked.

All of those birthdays, proms, Christmases and other special occasions in a boy’s life have, at times, been hard to keep track of. But ask Mercer to name his children and the names roll off his tongue, from oldest to youngest. He doesn’t miss a beat: Jeff, Rob, Dan, Sean, Jon, Josh, Joe, Jason, Mark, Erik, Cody, Javere, Chris. Some of the boys are living on the West Coast now, but Mercer still tries to visit all 13 in the course of a year. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t hear from most of them,” he said.

Mercer worked full time at Long Creek for 10 years, but as his family grew, he cut back his hours. (He also raises Bernese Mountain dogs.) Today, he works half time, mostly providing one-on-one spiritual counseling to boys at the center who need someone to listen.

“For me, my job has always been a feel-good kind of job because you get to be the good cop all day long, the voice of compassion,” Mercer said. “Corrections, by its very name, is kind of a negative thing. When your mother sent you on a time-out, I’m the nice uncle who would come and talk to you and hope you feel a little better.”

Rob Mercer, himself a father of four now, met his adoptive father at Long Creek. He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed 10-year-old who came from a home that “just wasn’t a very stable or good environment.”

“Dad has always been there for me,” he said, referring to Dan Mercer. “My parents really weren’t there for me a lot. They tried to be, here and there, but they really weren’t there for what I needed. I needed a father figure, and my father’s always been there for me. I could call at 3 in the morning, and he’d be there to listen to me.”

At age 33, Rob asked Dan Mercer to formally adopt him. Why take such a big step at such a late age?

Commitment. Family.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Dan Mercer said. “It’s the difference between living with your girlfriend and marrying her.”

“For me,” Rob Mercer added, “it was carrying a name I could be proud of.”

Over the years, food has helped tie the family together.

“A lot of the kids came from situations where it was hot dogs and macaroni and cheese,” Dan Mercer said. “So to come to a family where food was not only abundant but something that was always an occasion, it helps bring them around the kitchen table. A sit-down dinner was always an important part of our family. A lot of the kids came from families where they never did that.”

One child, Mercer recalls, wanted to eat only cube steak and hash browns when he first came to live with Mercer.

“He wanted it every single meal,” Mercer said. “Life had been so uncertain for him, he wanted to stick with what he knew.”

Last week, two of Mercer’s boys came home for lunch, lured by the promise of Champagne Chicken.

In addition to Rob, there was Chris Lane, a friendly 22-year-old with a charming smile who calls himself “Lucky No. 12.” He works at Dunkin’ Donuts but dabbles in Web design and dreams of someday working for Google. He is not formally adopted yet, he said, but they are working on it.

Lane met Mercer after his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was so sick she couldn’t take care of Lane, and he had nowhere to go but temporary places like group homes. Mercer wanted to bring him into the fold, but Lane resisted at first. Then he started hanging out more at Mercer’s house, visiting with the other boys who would soon become his brothers.

Lane’s mother died a few days after he turned 13.

“Before my mom died, we started spending a lot more time together and right when she passed was when I officially came in full throttle,” he said. “I never really had a father, so he (Mercer) really stepped it up and became a dad and was there for me. Those were the toughest times ever.”

As Lane and his brother Rob – they are particularly close – waited for their father to make the Champagne Chicken, they visited with friends who had gathered for the meal.

Lane picked up one of several white ramekins laid out on the table. “Dad, are you making cremè brûlée?” he asked hopefully. (No, the bowls were for a cranberry relish.)

Mercer cut the brined chicken on the bias, then the carrots the same way. When it comes to feeding a large family, speed is important, and Mercer believes the chicken and carrots cook more quickly when they are cut this way. Mercer has doubled the recipe for this lunch but says the original recipe, which serves three, should take about a half hour to put together.

Mercer has made Champagne Chicken so many times he no longer refers to the recipe. He typically serves it with sparkling cider and a Standard Baking Co. baguette cut into thin slices, good for sopping up the cream sauce.

Rob and Chris downed healthy portions of the dish, as if they were still 12 years old and going through a growth spurt. (And both took doggie bags home.) Chris calls it “nostalgia food.” He says his father is good at making both “chubby snack food” and “healthy, fancy stuff.”

Both sons say that learning to cook with their father and having family meals together has had a lasting impact.

“Food’s been like a rock for our family,” Lane said. “It’s always brought us together, and usually it’s our centerpiece for conversation, to catch back up with the brothers. There’s nothing like Dan’s cooking. Oh my gosh, I would choose that over dinner at a fancy five-star restaurant.” Lane says he has “a huge passion” for cooking. He’s worked as a prep cook at Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, which was “very stressful,” he said, laughing. “Becky’s Diner, I had a lot of fun working there.”

Dan Mercer says one of his sons cooked his way through half the restaurants in the Old Port. Another was a cook at the Weathervane before becoming a U.S. Marine.

Rob Mercer says the emphasis on food in the household brought him “a sense of familiarity.”

“It’s a sense of family,” he said. “A lot of things in this house revolve around food. I’m a foodie, and my dad is a foodie as well, so we’ve been to a lot of restaurants together. It’s not just cooking. Nosh in Portland – a great experience, probably the best reuben on rye I’ve ever had.”

Dan Mercer has put together a notebook of his recipes that are family favorites. It’s a comfort food cookbook in a binder about 5 or 6 inches thick that he’d like to have published someday. But if that never happens, he has the comfort of knowing his kids will be able to use it. Rob Mercer already does, although he says he tends to spice up the recipes because he likes his food hot. His favorites are the Italian beef stew, the chili and the Philadelphia sticky buns. And the Champagne Chicken, of course.

Rob is trying to pass along the habits he learned at the Mercer household to his own children by asking them eat at the table together instead of on the couch. He admits he is not always successful, especially with the older ones.

Holidays and other special occasions have become hectic as the family – Dan Mercer calls them his “tribe of 13” – has grown. Now spouses and 10 grandchildren meet around the Mercer table, too. And soon Dan will be a 54-year-old great-grandfather.

The tribe of 13 could not all be there last week for Champagne Chicken, but Erik, for one, wanted to make his opinion about the dish known, so he wrote a short note.

“I didn’t know food tasted so good,” the note said. “Champagne Chicken changed my life.”