“Potato Hot Chocolate,” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 62–63
Note: This story is from the Karl Morgan Richards oral history transcripts in the Church Historical Department.
Karl Richards and his missionary companion nodded their thanks when the mother of the Belgian family they were staying with served them hot chocolate. Karl took a sip—then went rigid as a most disagreeable flavor assaulted his taste buds. He glanced quickly at his companion, whose smile concealed a heroic effort to control the same reaction.
“It was awful,” Karl later recalled. “I couldn’t imagine what would ever produce a taste like that.”
But when he peered into the big iron kettle in which the chocolate had been prepared, he knew why. The good sister always boiled her potatoes in the pot and never cleaned out the starch residue before cooking something else in it. The hot chocolate tasted like potatoes!
Elder Richards, hoping not to offend, offered to show her another way to make chocolate. At the nearby store he bought milk, chocolate, sugar, and a scouring pad for the pot. “I showed her how you had to clean the pot so you could get the odor out,” he said. She tasted his brew and, with genuine delight, exclaimed: “This is delicious! I’ve never tasted anything so nice.”
Although proselyting missionaries generally do not get involved in teaching nutrition and home-making, the post-World War I years were especially difficult in Belgium’s less developed areas and the missionaries found that their work sometimes included practical assistance as well as their usual gospel teaching. This family lived simply in a very humble house with many small children. “The children didn’t have a change of clothes,” Elder Richards said, “so we put them to bed while we washed the clothing they wore.” Working like a Relief Society team, the elders also taught the family about house cleaning, keeping beds clean, and cooking.
Never during his mission (1920–23) did Elder Richards suspect that these simple homemaking lessons would make a big difference in anyone’s life.
After his mission, Karl worked and attended college, including university work in Paris. In time he became a United States Treasury agent, and because he spoke fluent French, the department assigned him in the late 1930s to the American embassy in Paris.
When the embassy had an assignment in Belgium, Karl was more than pleased to go. This gave him a chance to return to the area of his missionary labor. Since his visit involved official government business, local Belgian newspapers noted his arrival and carried his picture; and one evening, when he and Sister Richards returned to their hotel, they found an interesting note from someone who had just read about his visit.
“You probably don’t remember me,” the note began. “I was just a little girl in the _____ home.” Now she was married, she said, and, “We would like to have you come to dinner with us.”
Karl’s thoughts immediately returned to his missionary years and his stay with that particular family. He was curious. How had this girl turned out? Accepting the invitation, he wondered if he might be in for another experience with the potato hot chocolate of years ago.
But the experience at dinner astonished him. “When we entered the apartment I was completely surprised,” he said. “The apartment was beautifully furnished, and we enjoyed a fine meal, graciously served by an expert hostess.”
Delighted that she had impressed the missionary who had worked with her family, the young woman explained by recalling Karl’s “Relief Society” work in her home. “You probably don’t realize that the things you did to show my mother how to cook and how to keep a clean house—it bothered me a great deal,” she said. “And when you washed our clothes I was very sensitive about it.”
But, she said, out of her embarrassment had come a great blessing. The elders had shown her that there were new and better ways to do things, and she resolved to become a more refined and knowledgeable person, aware of a better way to live. So she pleaded privately with her father: “Father, I want to learn. I want to know how to do things. I’ve got to go to school.” Poor as he was, her father agreed to try to help her, and for many years he worked overtime and donated his extra earnings to pay for her school expenses.
This dedicated girl attended the normal school grades and excelled. She won scholarships and graduated from the university with the highest honors in her class. Her major specialization: domestic science (homemaking).
Then she was hired by a steel-manufacturing firm. Because of her outstanding record, she was asked to be the company’s official hostess during a historic Belgian celebration. The giant company invited important people from all over the world, and the new hostess officially entertained these guests with banquets.
In the midst of her hostessing, she noticed the newspaper report of Karl Richards’ visit to Belgium. What perfect timing! She could hardly wait to let the former missionary know what he had done for her life.
Karl Richards, later a mission president in Tahiti and Regional Representative to Quebec, Canada, died in 1980. But during his lifetime he told and retold the story of this girl, drawing two lessons from it. The first is that through teaching, whether it be the gospel message or skills of everyday living, Latter-day Saints can help others make their lives better. The second is that considerable progress can be made in just one generation if a person decides to rise above difficult circumstances to a better way of life.