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Wait, what did I just eat? Food stories from Mormon missionaries

Published: Thursday, May 29 2014 3:21 p.m. MDT

"Tako" is the word for octopus in Japanese and a sister missionary soon learned that Japanese "tacos" were not like the American ones.

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With missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving around the globe in numerous cultures, unique encounters with food become a prominent part of the missionary experience. Such moments make for great stories but can also help create an understanding of and appreciation for different cultures. We asked our readers to share some of their most memorable food experiences from their missions.

‘One tiny chicken foot’

I was a green missionary serving in a low-income district in Mexico City when my companion and I were invited for a lunch with one of the families of the ward that we were serving in.

We arrived at the humble apartment and took our seats at a dilapidated table that sat six — not enough to sit the missionaries, the parents and all the kids. A bowl of broth, which I assumed was part of the meal, was set in front of me.

When I looked in the bowl, there was something at the bottom that I scooped up with part of a corn tortilla. (Silverware was too expensive.) It was a chicken foot. Not a leg or drumstick, this was the bony foot — the only “meat” that this poor family could afford.

When six mismatched bowls were set on the table, I realized that this was the entire meal. I also noticed a few sets of hungry eyes that weren’t sitting at the table and weren’t given a bowl.

At that point, my pleas for God to bless this food and to bless this tiny home became very real.

One tiny chicken foot not only taught me what real sacrifice meant but also changed my view on gratitude forever.

— Tim Johnson, of Pleasant Grove; Mexico Mexico City North Mission, 1988-1989

‘Mission spaghetti’

I served my mission in Munich, Germany (now the Alpine German-Speaking Mission). I enjoyed many delicious German dishes — spaetzle (noodlelike dumpling dish), sauerkraut, kartoffelsalat (potato salad without mayonnaise) and wurst (many variations of sausage), as well as fresh-baked breads and desserts.

But the most memorable dish came very early on in my mission. My first assignment was in Erlangen, north of Nuremberg. My trainer, Elder Howell, a Draper native, was determined to speak German to me the entire time we were together. While his treatment eventually evoked a hearty “thank you” from me many months later on my mission, it initially proved disastrous, especially when it came to shopping and eating. Our first trip to the grocery store found me, the youngest of five (the others all sisters) and who never made a real meal, wondering what to buy and what the packaging said.

The result? I bought a package of spaghetti noodles and what I thought was spaghetti sauce. Turns out, it was tomato paste.

To make matters worse, our apartment did not have a proper stove but instead a single burner that would only warm up water for cooking rather than boiling it. So my first self-made meal on my mission was half-cooked spaghetti noodles with tomato paste.

Though that first effort was disgusting, I continued to perfect the art of what is now famously known to my children as “mission spaghetti,” a favorite Sunday-afternoon meal. Only now it includes fully cooked noodles, real spaghetti sauce (store-bought, of course), meat (a luxury skipped in my real mission spaghetti) and cheese.

— Scott Brown, of Phoenix

Japanese ‘tacos’

As a new missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Japan Okayama Mission, I had been in my assigned city of Hofu for less than 24 hours when I encountered my first difficult Japanese food experience.

My trainer, Sister Sonntag, was tall, blonde and quiet in nature. Much to my surprise, she nonchalantly led me into a “tako” (octopus) shop and ordered some lunch. I sat across from her at the table and watched in awe and horror as she daintily picked up a pair of chopsticks and ate a bite of octopus.

“Want some?” she offered kindly. My stomach (and my fingers) couldn’t do it.

During the next few weeks, I eventually learned to manage both chopsticks and octopus.

— Nettie Francis, of Kaysville; Japan Okayama Mission, 1994-1996

Appetite for adventure

Two missionaries serving in a small Austrian farm town in 1923 reported after eating with a member family, “We enjoyed ourselves until they asked us how we like the lungs. Pigs’ lungs wouldn’t be so bad if one did not know what (they were), but that spoiled our appetites. It was not spoiled very long, though. As soon as Sister Huber saw that we did not like the lungs or the other dish of pigs’ feet, ears and tail, she brought us each the leg of a gander.”

Nearly 90 years later, my companion and I were teaching a Punjabi family in that same town who insisted on feeding us each time we visited. We enjoyed the goat’s meat, rice and chapati Sister Pal cooked directly on the burners of their half-sized stove, but members of the local branch who came with us weren’t used to the spices in Indian food. I particularly remember one Austrian woman who gamely ate a large portion, tears streaming down her face, in order to show respect for the Pals and their culture. When we checked in the next day, she confessed she hadn’t slept a wink all night!

— Katherine Kitterman, of Provo; Alpine German-Speaking Mission, 2009-2010

‘Wait, what did I just eat?’

I was fortunate to serve my mission in the New York New York North Mission from 1993 to 1995.

My first companion was from El Salvador, and to this day, I have the highest level of respect, gratitude and love for him.

At one of our first dinner appointments, I was excited to enjoy some of the amazing food that Latin America is known for. I could smell something good and anxiously sat at the table. The sweet sister brought out two large bowls of soup. My companion looked at me with a smile. After the prayer, we began to eat.

I sipped the soup before dipping in my spoon for some meat and vegetables. As I chewed, I realized the texture was new to me. I could not speak Spanish to ask the sister what type of soup it was, so before I took my next bite, I leaned toward my companion and asked, “What kind of soup is this?” With a big smile he said, “Lengua de Vaca.”

I pulled out my Spanish dictionary only to discover I had just eaten cow tongue soup. To be honest, it was difficult to finish that bowl of soup. On the way home, I kept saying, “Wait, what did I just eat?” It still makes me laugh today.

— Seth Saunders, of Orem; New York New York North Mission, 1993-1995

Remembering

I loved the foods of Australia. I loved the fish-and-chip shops where I enjoyed the chips, maybe a piece of Flake, and potato cakes. The milk bars (small convenience store-type places) were great — sandwiches, pastries, meat pies (with or without sauce). Oh man, the flavored milk that went beyond chocolate flavor, for example, strawberry, caramel and banana — Big M’s, they were called. And don’t forget the variety of candy and cookies, from Chomps candy bars to Wagon Wheel cookies.

When we were kindly invited into an Australian home, we were treated to all sorts of good food. Usually the meal consisted of some meat dish surrounded by an abundance of good vegetables. I especially liked the lamb dishes.

My only complaint about mission food was what we as missionaries would cook. Some of the blame has to be mine for the following inventive delicacies: cold mashed potatoes with cold, congealed gravy. I thought it might work on a hot summer day. It didn’t work. Burnt eggs, burnt carrots, burnt mush. I got pretty good at burning food. Pizza, using Lebanese bread, ketchup for sauce and tuna and Parmesan cheese for toppings. Enough said. But, you know, I survived. That’s the main thing.

— Bill Hill, of Idaho Falls, Idaho; Australia Melbourne Mission, 1980-1982

Grilled (not fried) calamari

My wife and I had not been in Portugal long, serving in the Lisbon area, commuting by trolley and on foot while visiting LDS Church members and learning language skills. We were invited to the home of President Sousa, of the Sines Branch, for a “get acquainted” lunch and were treated to grilled calamari. These are small squid about 6 inches long, normally cut into rings resembling onion rings and deep fried. In this case, they were grilled whole on an outdoor charcoal grill.

My sweet wife, from Utah, to whom protein means beef, bravely dug in to her offering. A short while into the meal, her mouth appeared black and the color was spreading across her face. I called attention to the situation, and she rubbed her mouth. Everything she touched, skin, clothes, furniture, soon became smeared with black. President Sousa, unalarmed, explained that she had bitten into the full ink sack. We finished our meal and headed for our apartment, attracting no little attention on the way.

We were able to arrive, change and clean up without further discomfort. The clothes even washed out satisfactorily. She, however, has remained circumspect about new tastes to this day.

The people fed us the best they had. We love them.

— David and Wyoma Parker, of Bountiful; Portugal, 1989-1992

Great Lakes Mission BLTs

We got ourselves to stay out late tracting by promising ourselves BLTs when we got back to our apartment.

We didn’t have any bacon for our BLTs, but we did have baloney — aged baloney. No tomato or lettuce either and no ketchup, our normal substitute, but we did have mustard. Without any oil, we did have flour; so, we mixed the mustard and the flour, frying our new sandwich bread substitute between baloney slices.

We dreamily ate our Great Lakes Mission blackened-baloney BLTs, talking about the BLTs our moms used to make. I don’t remember how ours tasted, but I remember my companion falling asleep on the table, smiling and chewing.

— Kevin Marler, Great Lakes Mission, 1970-1971

It looked like steak

My companion and I were invited to dinner with an investigator and a few of his friends. Our investigator served us a beautiful piece of meat that looked like a large New York strip steak.

It was super tender, and despite its interesting texture, was so delicious. About halfway through the meal, I started hearing the Italian word “lingua” whispered between the natives.

Uh oh.

My greenie companion was oblivious, still happily consuming a fine Italian meal. But my glutinous delight quickly turned to horror as I looked down and realized I was eating a big fat cow tongue. I stopped eating immediately and felt my face turn white, then green. The Italians were amused yet non-apologetic. It was Italian cuisine, after all.

As for my companion, I decided to leave him in the dark. Ignorance was bliss for the lad.

— Joseph Ellsworth, of Provo; Italy Catania Mission, 1993-1995

Charm of Southern food

Most of the food I encountered while serving in North Carolina was not unlike what I had been used to growing up in St. George. The only food I had been forewarned about was collard greens, which I did not find that distasteful, although I did not come to really like them either. In contrast, I was introduced to banana pudding, which to this day is one of my favorite desserts.

A food combination I found strange at the time — during a missionary conference in Elizabeth City on the Atlantic Coast — was sandwiches made of slices of bread spread with mayonnaise and either sliced bananas or a slice of pineapple as the filling. At the time, I was amused at such a combination, but I soon began to look forward to conferences and more of these tasty sandwiches.

Brunswick stew, a food usually thought of as from the New England states, was a staple in the coastal section of North Carolina — mighty delicious. The Southern food must have agreed with me as I quickly gained extra pounds. I recall dozens of Southern cooks whose tables I had the privilege of sitting at many years ago.

— Clifford I. Alldredge, South Jordan; Central Atlantic States Mission, 1950-1952

‘Hot and spicy’

Alison Baxter was my name when I served in the South African Mission from 1961-63. I served three months in Pretoria, seven months as secretary to the mission president in the mission home office in Johannesburg, and several months in Durban.

It was a rare occasion for a group of missionaries to go to a restaurant for a meal. What prompted a few elders to invite two sister missionaries to share such an adventure, I will never knew.

Every menu entry briefly described a meal. One named “Monkey Gland Steak” caught my attention. Since we were in Africa and there were monkeys in the trees at many locations, this seemed like a cultural experience not to be missed.

When the food was served, it was not only hot but also spicy hot. After each taste, a draft of water mitigated the hot flames somewhat. Milk was brought to the rescue without much effect. Hot and spicy it was indeed.

The missionaries at the table were invited to share, but none obliged. Were the exceedingly hot spices necessary to camouflage the flavor of the monkey steak, I wondered, though I doubted that the meat originated from a monkey at all.

In retrospect, the hot spices were an influence of the Indian culture in South Africa. It was an experience well remembered with some humor to this day.

— Alison Baxter Larsen, South African Mission, 1961-63

Anything to share?

What can I say about food? Before my mission, I was spoiled about it. Simple homemade beans and rice warmed my heart and filled my soul with so much love and gratitude. Over there, someone once told me that when we don’t have anything to share, love is all we need indeed!

— Mulungu Zenon, Mozambique Maputo Mission, 2008-2010

Not like chicken

Kangaroo! And it did not taste like chicken. It was good.

— Maryann Barney Larkin, Australia Sydney South Mission

‘Cow hoof’ and gelatin

In Argentina, back in “ancient” times, there wasn’t much that I didn’t like. I had eaten all the organ meats most of my life, so that wasn’t new. Once we ate “cow hoof” sauteed with a sauce and served over rice. They boiled the hoof, took the gelatin out, diced the gelatin and served that with the gravy over rice. It was just like eating unflavored Jell-O. I loved most of the food down there. Still do.

— Cliff Russell, of Midlothian, Texas; North Argentine Mission, 1964-1966

Lizards and crickets

Lizards, crickets, frog — this is true and many more good stuff.

— Arturo Cabrera, Mexico Merida Mission, 1986-1988

Graciously accepting

At a branch banquet, I found myself being offered a dried fish to eat.

Because of the culture, I graciously accepted and began eating at the tail. It was salty and crunchy, but I managed to get it down without gagging. Then I noticed the fish had never been gutted. Not knowing what to do, I swallowed hard and started eating through the body of the fish; bones, guts, etc.

By the time I got to the head, my stomach was really churning. I looked around for a wastebasket but could see none. Then I saw someone put a fish head in their mouth and start chewing.

So, once again, I swallowed hard and put it in my mouth and started chewing. My stomach was really gurgling by this time, but I did keep it down and live to talk about it.

— Kelly Nielson of Riverton; Japan Sapporo Mission, 1975–1977

A fan of kangaroo

Australia had a lot of wonderful things to consume. Chips (think French fries but bigger), barbecue, shrimp and many other Australian delicacies really suited my palate. However, my favorite was kangaroo. It was such a versatile meat. We had kangaroo in pasta, steak, enchiladas, etc. Since my mission, I’ve told quite a few people about it. Most of the time people react to my eating kangaroo with revulsion. Look, I know kangaroos are adorable. In fact, I’ve met a few domesticated ones who were wonderful. But kangaroo is probably one of the most delicious animals out there.

— Adam Farnes

Seth Saunders is an executive business consultant and leadership coach. Seth has been married 18 years to his amazing wife, Amber, and is the proud father of three wonderful sons. He is passionate about helping others succeed.

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