Habits, mannerisms and cultural quirks that return home with missionaries

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 11:11 a.m. MDT

This photo taken Feb. 7, 2010, shows pelmeni, a crescent shaped dumpling found in Russian kitchens, with mushroom soup. (Larry Crowe, AP) This photo taken Feb. 7, 2010, shows pelmeni, a crescent shaped dumpling found in Russian kitchens, with mushroom soup. (Larry Crowe, AP)

Each New Year’s Eve, Josh Ferrin and his family stay up late making “pelmeni,” or dumplings — a delicious delicacy he was introduced to as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Pelmeni consists of little balls of dough filled with meat and, at the Ferrin house, an extra fun surprise.

“The custom is to hide something nasty in one of them, such as a piece of gum, a penny or fill it full of pepper,” Ferrin said. “Whoever eats it is going to have a really awesome year.”

In addition to the many spiritual blessings that come with dedicated missionary service, men and women also return home with new habits, mannerisms, acquired tastes or hobbies influenced by the traditions and cultures of their mission.

Bratwurst cooks over an open flame as hungry shoppers wait. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Bratwurst cooks over an open flame as hungry shoppers wait. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

“You become part of the culture for a few years,” Ferrin said. “And you pick things up that stick with you for the rest of your life.”

Chris Badger served in Ecuador, where people don’t point with their fingers: They nod their head and make a kissing motion with their lips in the desired direction.

“Every once in a while I catch myself doing that and people look at me funny,” said Badger, now a football player at Notre Dame.

When Steve Schaack was serving in Sacramento, Calif., the mission president’s wife instructed all the missionaries to never walk around their apartments in bare feet.

“You had to be wearing socks, shoes or sandals,” Schaack said. “To this day I cannot walk around the house barefoot.”

Fish and chips. (BEBETO MATTHEWS, AP) Fish and chips. (BEBETO MATTHEWS, AP)

Serving in Italy ignited a passion for Italian food for Shane Mickelsen. He also picked up a few other habits. He often finds himself using dramatic hand gestures and saying the word “no” when most Americans would follow up a comment with a verifying, “right?”

“You’re going out to eat, no?” Mickelsen said as an example.

Shane’s cousin, Tony Mickelsen, served in the Belgium-Netherlands Mission, where he found he liked how the Dutch handle their silverware. They keep their fork in the left hand and keep the knife in the right hand at all times, instead of setting it down occasionally, Tony Mickelsen said. The knife is then used to push all food onto the fork, which means they don’t ever stab food with their fork. He began picking up the habit when he grew up in Pennsylvania and observed a similar pattern among the Amish.

Chips and salsa. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Chips and salsa. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“My parents tried unsuccessfully for years to break that habit. When I got to Holland I was so excited to be among people who ate like me,” Tony Mickelsen said. “For the first time in my life, I was not the weird one at the dinner table. The Lord knew which mission was right for me.”

The Lord also knew to send Hilary Whitesides to Brazil. While she and her husband served in different Brazilian missions, the food, music and culture have become a significant part of their marriage.

“We speak Portuguese a lot at home, especially when singing the hymns,” Whitesides said. “A few hand gestures also sneak into our conversations at times.” They mostly keep their mission cultures alive through food. They enjoy making traditional dishes that include beans and chicken, as well as desserts and beverages.

Like many missionaries around the world, Saje Hurd gained an appreciation for the game of “futbol” (international soccer) while serving in the Mexico Mexico City East Mission. He admires the players’ skills and athleticism.

“I never played soccer before my mission, but now I’ll watch and play whenever I get the chance,” Hurd said. “I have about four or five different jerseys from Mexico’s national team to a few different teams in the Mexican professional league.”

In addition to developing better study and organizational habits, sister missionary Amberlee Lovell said she has a habit of relating everything to LDS Church history after serving in the New York Rochester Mission.

For example, she recently saw a wooden bucket.

“When I saw that bucket, I thought of a cooper, who made such items (in the 1800s),” Lovell said. “Then I remembered that Joseph Smith Sr. was a cooper. I’m always thinking about things like that.”

Bonnie Spencer was a Spanish-speaking missionary in the Washington D.C. North Mission. While developing an appreciation for Hispanic food, social skills and the Spanish language, Spencer also learned she liked to run.

“Many of my companions liked to run,” she said. “That ignited my interest in running.”

In addition to pelmeni, Ferrin favors two other Russian foods — borscht and kefir.

Borscht is a red beet soup that Ferrin’s wife makes because she knows he loves it. The bright red soup includes beets, beef, carrots and potatoes.

Kefir is a little more complicated. Ferrin describes it as a cluster of yeasts and bacteria that you drop in a cup of milk and leave in the refrigerator overnight, turning it into a “sweet, yogurt-like consistency.”

“The next morning you dump it out, stir in some fruit, maybe some sugar and drink it up. It’s a little bitter, a little buttermilky, but it’s unique,” Ferrin said. “You remove the cultures themselves, rinse them and drop them in another cup of milk and back into the fridge for another day. You can keep making as much as you want.”

It’s important to get the timing right — too long and it’s nasty, not long enough and it’s like warm milk, Ferrin said. One son tried the substance after Ferrin told him it was like a Go-Gurt, but other family members have declined. His wife smelled it once.

“It’s science meets cuisine,” Ferrin said. “There is a little bit of bravery involved in eating it, but I love the flavor. It reminds me of Russia.”

As a missionary in the Mexico Cuernavaca Mission, Kyle Christensen said the pantry was often empty. The most common items were basic in nature, including salsa, tuna, mayonnaise and tortilla chips. One day he experimented with those ingredients and discovered something.

“I mixed the salsa, mayo and tuna together and ate them with the chips,” Christensen said. “It was good. I still have it from time to time.”

Ben Sweat was serving in the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission when he tried his first bratwurst.

“Brats are definitely a Wisconsin thing,” he said. “I still love them, though my wife doesn’t have the same penchant for them. A pack of eight lasts me forever.”

Josh Sorensen acquired a love of pasta and Italian food while serving in the Italy Catania Mission from 1998-2000. His favorite recipe includes olive oil, crushed red pepper, parsley and Parmesan cheese.

“We still eat pasta a couple times a week,” Sorensen said. “I make this one for myself whenever I eat alone.”

Darin Southam, who served in El Salvador, wouldn’t say he is much of a cook, although he still savors a traditional plate of beans, cheese and rice once in a while. The most important lessons he returned home with are ones every faithful missionary is capable of retaining — an appreciation of the culture, a love of the people and a stronger testimony of the gospel.

“I brought home a spiritual sensitivity from my mission that I did not previously have,” Southam said. “My ability to listen to and act upon spiritual impressions was greatly augmented from my experience as a missionary.”

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