I love to eat. Food has been a close personal friend of mine my whole life, and I expect that beautiful friendship to last until I die. The hidden complexities of food are fascinating to me: temperature, texture, flavor, spice, all those factors play into food, and I love the exploration of eating.
I’ve eaten a lot of things. Some have been high-quality, some have been high-quantity, some have been awesome, and some have been awful. But for better or for worse, I’ve had some very memorable food experiences. Here’s one. It requires a little background first.
When I was about 20 years old, I was in the middle of a 2-year stint as Elder Dean, a suit-and-tie, black-nametag Mormon missionary.
Something important to understand about missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that the missionaries don’t get to pick their assignments. You send an application packet to Salt Lake City, and you get back a set of documents that tells you when and where to report for training, and then what corner of the globe you’ve been assigned to help. Individual missions don’t advertise.
I was assigned to Idaho, specifically what was called the Idaho Boise mission, which occupied a chunk of western Idaho and eastern Oregon, with Boise in the middle. For a city kid from southern California, this was a culture shock.
But the people were generally friendly, and we got regular dinner invitations from the local members. In this case, a nice old couple, who had retired from their life of farming to a nice retirement cottage community, had invited us over. This nice old farm wife called us that morning to confirm and asked us if there was anything special we’d like to eat.
So my companion is the one on the phone, and he turns to me and asks, and I say “it’s been a long time since I’ve had lasagna. Does she make lasagna?”
He asks, and it goes like this as I watch him on the phone:
“How about lasagna? – Well, it’s really not – Honestly it isn’t – well, that’s … excellent. We’ll see you this evening. “
And he hangs up the phone and says “Elder Dean, she’s never made lasagna in her life, but she’s gonna now because you asked.”
So all day we have a light dread about how we’re going to need to deal with dinner. We’re 20 year-old young men, so we can eat anything if we have to. And of course we’re prepped to find some way to compliment anything we get served. That’s just polite. But still, dread. And then the little old retired farmer comes to pick us up for dinner, and he doesn’t help. He leans in, in the way that older men confide in younger men, and he says:
“Elders, I don’t know what she’s makin’, but she sent me to the store for things I never heard of.” He was clearly skeptical, and the implication was clear. There was no telling what we were about to eat, but as men, three of us now, it was our duty to like it.
Arriving at the house, this dear little old farm wife greets us at the door, beside herself.
“Oh, I just don’t know about this,” says she. She can barely look us in the eye, so concerned is she that she’s failed to produce a decent meal.
She’s concerned that it looks awful. To be fair, it’s a lasagna. They all look a little messy. She’s concerned that it’s bubbled over the pan. Though again, it’s a lasagna. That’s normal. We were heartened that the lasagna looked normal, but this dear old lady was almost having an anxiety attack. She couldn’t even bring herself to serve it out. We had to. So we dished it out, shared a prayer on it (which I’m sure we all meant more than usual, for one reason or another), and started in.
It was the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten.
It was amazing: full-flavored with different meats, with that ropy blend of proper cheeses shot through the whole thing. The pasta layers were done just right, just enough sauce, the spice level was flawless—it remains a benchmark lasagna in my personal food memories.
So we ate our weight in lasagna, and heaped compliments on this dear little old farm wife. As she came to understand that she had produced a success, she shared her process. Not knowing how to make lasagna, she had gone to her library of cookbooks, opened them all to the lasagna recipe, and combined them. This was the one lasagna to rule them all. The master lasagna. The perfect platonic ideal of a lasagna.
Food is a simple thing. We can take it for granted. But what great moments food can generate. This lasagna was a great experience for everyone involved. Food facilitates this sort of experience. We have to eat, but nourishment isn’t just physical. We talk over food. We pray over food. We bond over food.
This nice old farmwife was willing to try a new thing, and my missionary companion and I were ready to be as supportive of her efforts as possible. Even her husband was willing to go to the store for ingredients he’d never heard of. So when he joyfully bellowed “why, this is pretty good. I think I’m a lasagna man now!”, the moment became unforgettable.