From corn starch to fruit bats to stinging nettle, returned missionaries share food stories

Mission experiences with food are often some of the most memorable

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 6:31 a.m. MDT

 (Larry Crowe, Associated Press) (Larry Crowe, Associated Press)

Whether Mormon missionaries have stateside or foreign assignments, there are local customs, cultures and food to become acquainted with. And experiences with food — whether it be visiting an outdoor market, eating meals with members or encountering a local favorite — are many times some of the most memorable and frequently shared of the mission experience.

When we asked readers to send us their missionary-food stories, our email box filled up. Below is a sample of responses we received. We hope you enjoy reading these stories, shared in the spirit of good fun, reverence for missionary work and respect for various cultures around the world.

As a new missionary in southern France in early 1981, we had a hankering for American cornbread, which recipe was in the mission cookbook.

Pelmeni is a crescent-shaped dumpling found in Russian kitchens, and sometimes comes with a surprise inside. (Larry Crowe, Associated Press) Pelmeni is a crescent-shaped dumpling found in Russian kitchens, and sometimes comes with a surprise inside. (Larry Crowe, Associated Press)

We rounded up the ingredients, and I noticed that French cornmeal seemed to be a bit finer than American cornmeal, but I didn't think much of it, since many of the equivalent French foods were slightly different.

We mixed it, baked it and let it cool, and when we sliced it, we found the corn bread to be as hard as a hockey puck. We followed the recipe exactly. What went wrong?

That's when we learned the difference between the French words for "corn meal" and "corn starch."

— Chris King, Gaithersburg, Maryland

I served in the Texas Dallas Mission from 2002-04. As a stateside missionary, we were fed very often by members. I never had many bad meals. I can remember the best meal, though.

 (Larry Crowe, Associated Press) (Larry Crowe, Associated Press)

We were going down the ward list and trying to meet all of the members in the area, mostly to reach out to less-active members. We knocked on a door that I didn't recognize the name for. When the door opened, I realized it was an active member's house, and I just never remembered their name.

Anyway, we quickly got to know the family and found out that not only were they extremely friendly, but the father owned a well-regarded restaurant. He asked us if we had eaten lunch, and after we said no, he prepared a smorgasbord in 20 minutes flat. We had steak, quail,

lobster and barbecued chicken with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables.

It was the best-tasting food I had for the whole mission, and it was amazing seeing him be able to whip it together in short order.

 (Larry Crowe, Associated Press) (Larry Crowe, Associated Press)

— Bryce Hanson

My husband and I served a leadership mission in the Philippines from 1997-99 and had a wonderful time! The first thing we did was ask the young AP elders assigned to take us to our new home to please help us get a few groceries before we got there.

They took us through the planke (outdoor market) and I was able to purchase Clorox, a dozen eggs, a chicken, celery (six little scraggly bunches that equaled one of our bunches of celery), a half pound of carrots (what will you do with that many carrots, the clerk asked), some onions and potatoes.

When we got to our new home we had to boil the water for 10 minutes, wash the vegetables and eggs with Clorox water, then rinse with the boiled water, and never use the potato peel. It was time-consuming!

 (Larry Crowe, Associated Press) (Larry Crowe, Associated Press)

Once, when we decided to have some variety, we purchased a couple of octopuses and my husband had black ink clear to his elbows after he cleaned them for me. I cooked them and they tasted like rubber!

When we would go to the ward parties the food would be served in plastic baggies and the folks would eat with their two forefingers and push the food off into their mouths with their thumbs.

We felt like a king and a queen because they would have a plate and silverware there for us to eat with.

They were some of the nicest, most thoughtful people we have ever met! We absolutely loved our mission!

— Larry and Marie Humpherys, Harrisville, Utah

I went to Anaheim California in the 1970s. The members there were great to feed the missionaries every night. My companion and I had a unique experience in one ward.

We had spaghetti 17 nights in a row. We got used to saying, "Oh, look, Elder, spaghetti."

I look back on it now and it still makes me chuckle. At that time we thought it was a pasta conspiracy.

— Stuart Bailey, Fillmore, Utah

Elder Vance made a pan of "Sizzlers," which are basically blazing hot chocolate brownies with double the cooking oil added. Serving the Sizzlers is a four-man operation — immediately after one elder yanks the pan of brownies out of the 500° F oven, two elders hurriedly dish the servings into bowls while the fourth elder pours a cup of cold milk over the surface of each brownie.

Then everyone listens intently while the rapidly cooling dessert sizzles and pops for a few seconds. Some elders have even been known to time the event with a stopwatch in an effort to set a record for the longest duration of sizzling. The record currently sits at about 8 seconds.

— Perry Ross, Finland Helsinki Mission, 1986-88

I served in the Germany Düsseldorf Mission from September 1974 to September 1976. Both my new companion and I arrived at the City of Essen and were without any money for a week.

Our kind bishop took us to the basement of the store he owned and found some old World War II-era biscuit rations. We ate them for a few days to supplement a bag of noodles. Very memorable and very hard.

— Bob Hardy

While serving on the island of Palau in the Micronesia-Guam Mission (2009-11), my companion and I decided to end a particular p-day with some ice cream on a dock that jutted out into the ocean. As we were doing so, a couple in the branch that I was serving in drove up and told us they had some food for us, but we had to come pick it up.

We stopped by later to pick it up, and to our surprise (and my dismay), it was a couple of fruit bats. The natives call it fruit bat soup — when really it's not a soup at all but a whole fruit bat boiled in water. Apparently, the water tastes good after the boiling process, but I couldn't ever bring myself to drink it. I hear Chamorros (natives of the island of Guam) love it. They'll pour the "soup" into water bottles and drink it throughout the day.

Anyway, the bat still has its fur and teeth and insides and everything. Fruit bat is kind of a treat for the Palauans, and they will eat everything and leave only the bones. I didn't want to be rude and pick it apart eating only the meat, so my companion and I just went for it the best we could. The hardest part to stomach was easily the fur — it's extremely absorbent and hard to swallow.

I never did get used to eating it.

— Taylor Barlow

I had been in the mission field in the Southern Australia Mission (1962-64) for about two weeks and I was still very green and very gullible. I was in Perth, Western Australia, and my landlady was Dutch.

One evening for dinner (tea), she brought out a plate full of cooked elbow macaroni mixed with ground beef. Next, she brought out a fried egg. It was crispy — just the kind I had at Scout camp where you can hold it on one side and the rest sticks straight out. She placed the egg on top of the noodles. It nearly covered the whole plate. Next, she brought out a banana and sliced it and put the slices on the egg.

By now, I was getting suspicious of the combination of food on my plate.

The banana slices were followed by some ketchup and topped off with some grated cheese. The whole thing didn't look very appetizing, but I had learned that I had better eat my evening meal (tea) and be grateful. I sprinkled a little salt and pepper on it and then ran into my room to get my camera to take a picture.

I hope I didn't offend my landlady, but I knew my family wouldn't believe me without a photo. I must say, it tasted pretty good.

I never learned what it was called so I named it Australian Surprise.

— Phil Blackwell, Orem, Utah

Most Latvian food is quite plain and simple. They eat a lot of soups with very little meat in their diet.

Most of the time we were feeding others. Some of the favorite American dishes that we prepared were chicken enchiladas, taco soup and chili.

Once, Sanita and Santa, twin young single adults, wanted to fix us a traditional Latvian meal. They said we were going to have soup and they would bring the special ingredients. Our contribution of vegetables, potatoes and small portions of meat was rather predictable. We were curious about what they were going to bring.

Their secret ingredient was something they picked up on the side of the road as they traveled from the country to the city.

As they carefully removed the "weeds" from their bag, they told us not to touch anything because it might bite us. These weeds looked vaguely familiar but we weren't quite sure what this last ingredient was. They showed us how to only use the bottom sections that were picked in the spring. They carefully poured boiling water over the weeds three times before adding them to the broth.

We wanted to know what kind of soup we were eating and Google Translate wasn't helping very much. Finally the Internet told us what we had for dinner with our two Latvian friends. We were eating stinging nettle soup.

And, no, it didn't bite a bit.

— Ron and Brenda Jacques, Tremonton, Utah

I'm a very picky eater, so even though I served my mission stateside in the Pennsylvania Harrisburg Mission (2000-02), I was still served food I did not enjoy. I genuinely tried to eat what our generous members provided us and came away liking many foods I previously would have turned down.

One evening we were invited into the home of a couple who took care of foster children along with their own kids. They had been busy that day and picked up some Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. It was nothing that most people would turn their nose up at. I hear KFC makes some spectacular coleslaw, though anything with cabbage is not among my list of palate-friendly foods.

At this particular time this member couple were caring for a toddler whom I was seated next to at the dinner table. I had been given coleslaw with my meal because who doesn't like coleslaw?

In an attempt to avoid insult, while the other adults were away from the table I moved to spoon my coleslaw onto the toddler's plate. I was sure I was sneaky enough to evade detection. I only managed one spoonful when I heard from the doorway, "Elder Butler! I saw that!"

This sweet sister had turned around just in time to see my vain effort to place the blame on her foster child.

Thankfully, that experience came relatively early on in my mission and I learned tactful honesty was much better than deception and subterfuge.

— Dave Butler

The first and foremost fact that you need to understand is that I hate cantaloupe. On the other hand, I love watermelon.

When summer came to the California Anaheim Mission (1991-92), where I served Spanish-speaking, and I found out that every house we went to wanted to serve me "Agua de Melon," or cantaloupe-flavored water, I was, well, a little disappointed. However, having been prepared to be offered cow brain and cow eyeball tacos by my MTC teachers, I was relatively relieved to just get cantaloupe water. Not wanting to offend, I quickly came to a sort of truce with this cantaloupe water. My strategy was down it as quickly as possible.

I still remember even what the house looked like where the ray of sunshine blasted through the drought of flavor. I knocked on the door and my companion gave the door approach. Pretty soon the family was inviting us inside. We sat down on the couch getting ready to give a first discussion. Before we could start though, the father of the house suddenly offered us some refreshments. "Queiren sandia?" he asked nonchalantly. My brain was buzzing. In my still burgeoning Spanish, I knew many words, but I had experienced almost no situations that called for this particular word. I reached back in my memory and then suddenly blowing past the heat, blasting past the reluctant surrendering expectation of more cantaloupe juice, the translation came — "Would you like some watermelon?"

After my probably overly enthusiastic accepting of the offer, the father disappeared in the kitchen with his daughters for a few minutes. Soon he re-emerged with bowls full of little chunks of watermelon.

His daughters, ages 10 and 11, came forth and set the bowls in front of myself and my companion. I had no idea how my companion was reacting. I was barely aware of anything except the glorious bowl of red deliciousness that was swimming before my eyes.

I was just about to open my mouth and bite into the blissful palatal completeness when suddenly the older sister said loudly, "O! Nos olvidamos!" ("Oh! We forgot something.")

Perplexed, I put down the spoon and with a sense of confusion saw the two girls grab the bowls and rush out of the room, back into the kitchen. But almost instantly, the girls were back.

Sitting before me was a luscious bowl of watermelon pieces liberally sprinkled with cayenne pepper!

I was stunned. I took a bite.

And, I liked it! Stunningly the glorious juices were still there. The fabulous flavor was rolling over my tongue and somehow perhaps if not better at the very least great.

And all was right in the world.

Of course, I was wrong in that I never again was offered "Sandia" on my mission and ended up drinking gallons of the cantaloupe stuff, I never got to like it. Although, I did learn to love the food of the mission.

— Michael Matthews

I served in the Canada Toronto Mission from 1980 to 1982. While serving in the downtown area, there were some government-assisted apartments, in which an elderly sister lived. We were invited to her apartment for a Sunday meal.

Being from the Caribbean, she cooked a favorite meal from her homeland. It was a humble meal of vegetables and plantain.

Knowing this gracious sister was serving a meal to the missionaries with only love in her heart and knowing we needed to be most gracious in return, we said a prayer and started in.

Never having had plantain before I had only a little apprehension about our meal. When I tried to swallow the first bite of plantain I couldn't swallow it, I guess it being a texture thing. There was a lot of drinking of water to finish it. I felt bad knowing this sister of little means wanted to serve the missionaries the best way she knew how. I tried to be as diplomatic as I could be when asked if we liked the meal. I will always be in humble gratitude for the sweet sister who with her modest means wanted to serve the missionaries by providing a meal.

Still to this day, thinking about eating plantain causes a lump in my throat.

— Rick McLaughlin

I served in the Germany Hamburg mission from July 2006 to July 2008. At this particular time, I was serving in the city of Hamburg (Wartenau area). I was on an exchange with our zone leaders, who also happened to serve in our same area, and we were on our way to visit a family from Ghana, who my companion and I had done some service for at the behest of the sister missionaries who also served in the same ward. It was a busy area.

This lovely family had invited us and the sisters over for dinner to show their appreciation for the service rendered earlier and we had no idea the treat we were in for.

For the uninitiated, most Ghanaian food is eaten with the hands, soups included. Dishes like "fufu," which is a soup eaten with the assistance of a dough or paste, are common and usually very good. On this particular night, we had a very good okra soup, some fufu and finally something called granite, or at least sounded like it was called granite.

Granite was a dark-yellowish sheep stew. Not sheep meat, sheep. I got lucky, in that my serving had a part of a leg bone with some meat on it. The zone leader got a snout, complete with nose and teeth (which was gladly given to one of the hosts). As for the sisters, one got an organ of some kind and the other got a hoof.

— Mike Winters

I served in the South Korea, DaeJeon Mission from March 2003-05. I loved almost everything about it, even the kimche — eventually. Overall, the food is amazing, and I really developed a taste for much of it.

But there was one item that when I ate it, I felt like I would either die or become debilitated in some way. An investigator took us to a renowned and very expensive seafood restaurant in the area.

I was very excited, because I like seafood. But little did I know, this dinner appointment would end up in the history books for a reason I regret to even remember. We sat down on the floor around a small table. Although I didn't understand what he said, our host ordered what I was soon given the impression to be "the dish."

When it arrived, I saw why.

The platter was made up of five or six individual pieces of raw seafood, each one no bigger than a couple inches long. When we began, our host said that we had to "try this," pointing to the dish with two pieces on it.

"This is Hong-Uh," he said with pride and a smile.

So, my companion took a bite, and a little later I took my bite. I was immediately encompassed by a sensation I have never before had. It tasted like I had bitten into a bag of window cleaner (or as I imagine it to be). I didn't know what to do.

Everyone at the table was looking at me. "This tastes nothing like any food I've ever eaten. What do I do?" I thought.

Mind you, our host was not wealthy and this single piece of fish was about $40 a piece. Not only that, but not eating the food you've been served (especially at an expensive restaurant) is offensive.

So I did what I can now say I am proud of. I swallowed it. I thought I was going to die, but I swallowed it.

Later that night I found out that my companion had secretly spit his serving into his napkin without anyone seeing. I felt so betrayed. This was definitely my most memorable food story from my mission. The Hong-Uh trumped the fish eyeball, dried squid, and the deathly hot pepper I ate.

— Jake Nelson

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