1975: Attack of The Casseroles!

It was a marvelous opportunity to start over, to re-energize myself. After spending close to eight months (a third of my mission!) dealing with the challenges of missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts I was finally being transferred to Skowhegan Maine. That little mill town would prove to have its own set of challenges and rewards, but I loved being there, if for nothing else because people both in and out of the congregation seemed to latch on to me as well. I’d like to think the esteem came from my excellence as a teacher and diligence in the work, but looking back it probably had something to do with pity and the fact that I came from one of the very few parts of the nation that could get colder than Maine.

When I first arrived I was a I was a little unsure– as I left Massachusetts everyone told me that “Maniacs” were very stand-offish and that I would not be accepted for at least the first three months…which kind of confused me when the first Sunday in town had me praying for an arm sling after being rather energetically greeted with energetic handshakes by everyone in the congregation.  I was a bit confused because the members of the Skowhegan congregation were every bit as friendly as the ones I had left behind in the Lynnfield (MA) ward.

The light dawned after my companion and I had been working in the area for about a month and our arrival at meetings on Sunday began to resemble a VJ day ticker-tape parades down Madison Avenue. The nay-sayers in my first area had been correct and my reception had been a bit cool when I first arrived; it’s just that the Maine version of standoffishness had the same warmth as the Massachusetts version of high regard.

…and it wasn’t just the congregation. The townspeople in general were just as warm; merchants would give us discounts, post office personnel would make sure we got our packages quickly, and clergy from other faiths were more likely to trade funny sermon stories than contend with us over scriptural interpretations. There have been very few times/places where I felt so loved, but there was one time when I was almost loved if not to death then to a state where I wished it.

It was in the early spring at the second of two evening events at the church space two weeks apart. The first was a general dinner/social event but the second was an open house than Elder Miller and I had organized. This open house was the proverbial Big Deal – we’d worked overtime the preceding month preparing displays, inviting speakers and scheduling musical numbers, all of which was happening in conjunction with the dinner I was missing while conducting the event.

As I said I was well-loved in that little congregation and shortly was beset by a cluster of Relief Society sisters, each one holding their casserole and ladling a portion of it onto a plate that had mysteriously appeared in front of me. I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took of bite of each one – and I have never encountered such a wide array of tastes before in my life. Most of casseroles had a basic savory taste but some were salty, some were very tart and some obviously prepared by a cook of Italian extraction. A couple of them had an odd, almost gamey taste that I had heretofore only found in venison, but in this case was mostly likely TVP1. I bolted the contents of the plate as fast as I could after which my Miller and I wound up the event, took down the displays, cleaned up the multipurpose room and went home.

I was so tired that I was asleep the minute my head hit my pillow…but less than two hours later I was awake – awake and doubled up with the worst stomach ache I had ever had in my life. The stomach ache soon morphed into nausea and threw up so hard I thought I saw my socks come up. Then the “distress in the lower tract” started and I spent thirty minutes out of every hour on the commode.

It wasn’t until the Relief Society President checked on me the next morning that I figured out that I had contracted food poisoning. It had to have been one of the casseroles at the open house the night before so we checked around to make sure no one else had shared my fate…and fortunately no one had. We considered other possibilities but it always came back to the open house and when we got a second call from the Relief Society president the mystery was solved.

When women in the ward would prepare a hot-dish or casserole for a social they would cook it in a bread pan.  I’m not sure how the custom started; it may have been a cost-cutting measure but then I’d often see a family bring in more than one bread pan so it may have been a way to inject some variety into the meals. It certainly was a savior for families with several small squirmy children that would have had real trouble transporting a full sized casserole dish at the same time.  Lastly, it also may have been a tactic to speed up serving because so many pans could be heated in the meetinghouse oven at the same time.

…which is how my tummy trouble came about.

When everyone arrived for the regular church social two weeks earlier they all placed their bread pan casseroles in the oven, but when it came time to serve the food one of them was left behind – and sat in the unheated oven for two weeks until our open house. At that point the oven was again filled with the small pans, but this time ALL of them were removed and the contents served, including the one that had stayed behind a fortnight.  To my misfortune I was the only one to each part of that dish – I had to eat so quickly that evening that I passed off unusual smell or taste to (again) TVP.

I really couldn’t blame anyone for the incident. The members of the congregation were guilty of nothing worse than enthusiasm and I probably should have paid closer attention to what I was eating. Unfortunately I am by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet of any type. For me food is simply fuel and my idea of haute cuisine is extra vinaigrette sauce on my Jimmy John’s #5 so a moderate difference of aroma raised no warning flags.

The bottom line was that everyone really liked/loved Elder Deitrick – and if two hours of tummy trouble was the price for that esteem I would call it the bargain of all bargains.

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1 TVP Textured vegetable protein – an economical meat substitute that was very popular during the recession-ridden Seventies

 

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