On June 20, 1854, Elizabeth Kane received a note from her husband that he had invited some “common men” for dinner. Elizabeth, then 17, had been married to Thomas Kane, her second cousin, for a little over a year. Raised in an upper-middle-class family in England, she had grown up idolizing her dashing and wealthy “Cousin Tom,” who was fourteen years her senior. After their marriage, she often found herself hopelessly adrift navigating the social customs of Philadelphia’s upper-crust society. She feared her lack of gentility would be readily evident to those in the Kanes’ aristocratic social circles and that her husband would come to resent her “ugly face” and “rude ways.” As she sat in the Philadelphia mansion she and Thomas lived in with his parents, she interpreted his note to mean that she should expect some of his “intimate friends,” so she ordered oysters.
To her disappointment, Thomas arrived with three “labouring men,” Mormon missionaries, “going penniless, to convert England.” A staunch evangelical, Elizabeth viewed her husband’s involvement with the Mormons with deep suspicion. Looking at the “hungry mountain countrymen,” Elizabeth decided that the oysters would be wasted on them and that they would not find adequate “nourishment” in her “kickshaw, strawberries, ice-cream, spring chickens and veal cuttels.” Consequently, she sent her servant to buy “Rashers of Bacon.” Another Mormon (a “cigar-merchant named Harrison”) and Thomas’s brother Pat also arrived for dinner.
Elizabeth described the missionaries in detail in her journal. James Ferguson, a former sheriff of Salt Lake County who had been a member of the Mormon Battalion that Thomas had helped raise, had “an open pleasant face, and a frank smile.” The other two missionaries–”a light-haired freckled-faced Yankee Wheelock by name” and a “Scotchman, named Dunbar”–were both from the lower classes and possessed uncouth manners.
While Harrison quietly “shovel[ed] the food into his mouth in prodigious mouthfuls,” Ferguson “talked and laughed and ate, in a natural and unembarrassed manner, and consequently nothing ridiculous appeared in his behavior.” The other two missionaries, however, “with many grammatical slips, apologised for mountain manners, declaring they had been so long unused to civilised life that they did not know how to behave.” Elizabeth scoffed to her diary, “I would not be inclined to disbelieve the stories of Mormon evils, were they the only ones among the Mormons whom I had ever seen. I would not be surprised to see these men in the Insane Asylum, or in the Penitentiary Dunbar for insulting ladies in the street, Wheelock for cheating.”
In Mormonism’s early days, missionaries often literally traveled without purse or scrip, relying on the generosity of the people they encountered for their lodgings and food. Perhaps many, like Elizabeth, were repelled by the missionaries’ poverty and lack of refinement. Even today, missionaries eat many meals in the homes of church members and others to reduce their expenses and to meet the local members.
Missionary dinners, as Elizabeth’s diary makes clear, have always been something of a doubled-edged sword. On my own mission in southern Brazil, I was always impressed at how the members shared their daily lunches with the missionaries. I hope that I did not do too many things to offend them (though admittedly I sometimes made things uncomfortable for newer American companions by declaring that, yes, indeed, they would like another helping.) As a selective eater (a term I prefer over picky), I quickly learned that I could eat almost anything as long as the ratio of rice to undesirable food was high enough. Living in Indiana over the past eight years, my family has often hosted missionaries. Most of these visits have been enjoyable. Others, not so much. Like the Elder who inquired as to how many children we desired and how exactly we would space them. Or the Elder who treated our infants’ toys as a footrest. Or the Elder who droned on while teaching us two principles out of Preach My Gospel, only to be stopped by our toddler careening down the stairs. So, what are your stories of missionaries’ meals?
(Source: Elizabeth W. Kane Journal, 20 June 1854, Thomas L. and Elizabeth W. Kane Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU)