Potato Hot Chocolate

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.

William G. Hartley, research historian, Brigham Young University, serves on the high council in his Sandy, Utah, stake.

Hymn of Comfort

I turned off the engine and just sat there in my pickup truck. I was trying to compose myself after another trying day at the plywood plant. Not that the work was hard, but I was going through an emotional crisis associated with a divorce that left me drained most of the time.

I was ill prepared for this sudden change in my life, and I was left in shock for some time. “How could this have happened to me? What will I do now? How can I go on?” These and other thoughts went through my mind over and over as I faced one grief-stricken day after another. The days at work were long, but not as bad as the nights, when sleep would not come and nothing would calm my nerves.

Now, as I slid out of the pickup and went toward the house, I could see my son and my mother at the kitchen table playing a game. Mom had come to stay awhile to help out and to keep my twelve-year-old son Dean company. I walked in and set my lunch pail on the counter and turned to respond to their hellos. I stood there for only a moment before heading out to the newspaper box. I did things mostly out of habit during those sad days, and so I read the paper before starting supper.

That evening I spent a lot of time on the telephone, looking for comfort from friends and relatives and, if nothing else, occupying my time so the hours wouldn’t seem so long. Later, my mother and I talked. She is a wise woman, so I mostly listened while she did the talking.

“You’ve got to pull yourself out of this slump,” she said. “This is something you can’t change. You must accept it and go on with life. I’m sorry it happened. But you have the welfare of your son to think about, and when you’re down it saddens him too.”

I knew she was right, but it was hard to focus my thoughts. Some of her words registered, but others seemed to pass me by like feathers in a wind.

Then I caught a sentence that triggered my attention again. She said, “When you came home, Dean looked at you as you got out of the pickup and said, ‘Well, Dad had another bad day.’ “I knew I had to compose myself around Dean more, but it was all so overwhelming that there were times when we would both end up crying together.

The next day at work was no better—worse, in fact. Tears came easily as I wrapped myself in self-pity. I couldn’t see any end to this relentless suffering. I couldn’t see a future, or any hope for better times. There seemed to be no one to turn to. All the people I talked to tried to offer me comfort, but it was no use. Their sympathy only brought out more emotion. The pressure seemed to build and intensify until I thought my sanity was going to vanish. At last I cried aloud in desperation, “God help me. Give me back my wife!”

I was not accustomed to praying, but I had come to a point where I knew of no other direction to turn. There was a time when I knew how to pray and was quite active in the Church, but somehow I had slipped away and was caught up in worldly ways.

Now something was happening, though. No sooner had I cried out than a wonderful feeling came over me. I can’t describe it. It was just a feeling of power encompassing me, protecting me. And then words came to me, words and vaguely familiar notes of music, words of a hymn I had heard before, but in a different time of my life. I began to sing, and as I sang, every word fell into place:

We thank thee, O God, for a prophet
To guide us in these latter days.
We thank thee for sending the gospel
To lighten our minds with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee,
And love to obey thy command.

The verse came to me as clearly as if I had sung this hymn every day of my life. Yet I know I had not sung or even thought of it for over fifteen years. I sang it over and over, louder; I didn’t care if anyone heard me. To me it was a healing force, and it gave me comfort.

When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us
And threaten our peace to destroy,
There is hope smiling brightly before us,
And we know that deliverance is nigh
We doubt not the Lord nor his goodness,
We’ve proved him in days that are past. …
We’ll sing of his goodness and mercy.
We’ll praise him by day and by night,
Rejoice in his glorious gospel,
And bask in its lifegiving light.

(Hymns, no. 196.)

It was my Heavenly Father’s answer to my plea, and I shall never forget the words and the spirit that permeated my soul as I sang the words and contemplated their meaning.

In the months that followed, I called upon my Heavenly Father many times to help me through the trials of that difficult time, and he was always there. I learned something from that experience. There is someone you can turn to in time of need. He didn’t chastise, ridicule, or upbraid me for ignoring him for so many years. He simply let me know that he was there all the time, and all I had to do was call.

It wasn’t long before I put my life back together. I returned to church and renewed my covenants with my Father in Heaven. I found new meaning to life and have set new goals. The divorce proceeded, and I made the best of the situation. I survived. I am now strong and happy again. For in time I was able to reach out for righteous, strengthening associations, and recently I went to the Seattle Temple where my new wife and I were married for time and all eternity.

Thank God for his goodness and mercy.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn