The Relief Society Dinner that Spontaneously Combusted

Last Friday our ward celebrated the Relief Society’s 181st anniversary with an ambitious program involving all the organizations: the Relief Society prepared a play in three acts recounting the founding; the Primary was tasked with sewing bonnets for all the women; the Young Women and Young Men decorated the cultural hall; the bishopric set up the sound reinforcement; and the elders quorum was asked to cater dinner in accordance with guidance provided by the Relief Society.

The central feature of the dinner menu was to be roast chicken. There were a lot of moving parts for the dinner, so I decided to delegate the side dishes and deserts to members of the quorum and took responsibility for the main dish myself.

A week before the Relief Society’s gala event, I placed an order for 20 roast chickens at the grocery store deli just down the street from the church to be ready for pickup a half hour before the dinner was scheduled to begin. The same deli had taken care of twice as many chickens for our Christmas party, so I figured they were up to the task. Deli staff were happy to take my order, and when I followed up in person on Wednesday they gave me two thumbs up—everything was on track.

On Friday I arrived five minutes later than planned. From the store’s entrance I could see quite a bit of steam issuing from the deli’s heated display case—someone had stuffed all 20 chickens in there. I was a little surprised at the amount of steam, but mostly I was just glad that the chickens were warm and ready to go.

Just then a counselor in the bishopric called and asked if I needed help transporting the chickens. I was on foot since there was no parking available at this particular store, and the church was just a block away. So I gladly accepted his offer and waited for him near the entrance.

In the approximately three minutes it took for him to walk over from the church, the display case reached the autoignition temperature of the plastic-lined paper bags in which the twenty chickens had been packed, the chickens burst into flame and the glass case exploded—20 steaming carcasses had simply overwhelmed the warming case’s design parameters.

With jaws still dropping, deli employees moved quickly to extinguish the flaming chickens with a bucket of water, resulting in clouds of smoke and steam filling the store. To be fair, this grocery store was much smaller than its typical American counterpart, but still—filling even a modestly sized store with steam and smoke was no mean feat.

Anyway, the chickens were a total loss. So was the deli. There was safety glass, water and blackened remains of paper sacks everywhere. The manager arrived on the scene and was initially speechless. Then again, so was everyone else. He took the most urgent measures required by the unexpected turn of events and eventually offered us the three uncooked chickens they still had in the back. With sympathy for the beleaguered employees and in a spirit of pragmatism, I told him not to worry about it and asked if he needed anything from me for an accident report or whatever stores do when the deli blows up. He didn’t, so we returned to the church to inform the Relief Society that their dinner had just gone up in smoke. They thought we were kidding. 

After an urgent huddle with my counselor and members of the bishopric, we split up to canvas the other stores in the area for whatever cooked meat they had on hand while the ward clerk made a run to KFC. In the end, we were able to scrounge enough for everyone to have their fill, though with a 40-minute delay and substantial deviations from the originally envisaged menu. All I could find were ham hocks, for example, but several people raved about them, including one of the RS counselors, who was pleased to have an alternative to chicken. So in a way, dinner turned out not just better than one might have expected under the disastrous circumstances but perhaps even better than originally planned.

The rest of the evening proceeded as expected. While we were washing up afterwards, my counselor, always looking on the bright side of things in the best Mormon fashion, wondered if there was a silver lining to the fiasco—perhaps we were spared a mass salmonella event? I don’t know if we will ever know. But while the search for meaning continues, I’m going to recommend out of an abundance of caution that your future ward activities revolve around frozen desserts.

Playlist recommendation:


  1. Kristin Brown says:

    This is the best post I have read on this site. I laughed and laughed while I continued to read. I am sure there is a pioneer story comparable to your fiasco. But you did it! The brethren in glory saved the Relief Society event. Next assignment- to feed 5,000.

  2. Three cheers for the brethren of the Priesthood!

  3. Thank you, but I hope this post doesn’t come across as a self-congratulatory example of problem solving. I mean, sure, all’s well that ends well, and I’m glad for the participants that the event wasn’t a total bust, but it was also a deflating reminder that your best-laid plans are always being shadowed by the universe with a blackjack concealed up its sleeve.

  4. Hilarious. It made my Monday.

  5. Loved this

  6. EagleLady says:

    I chuckled as well! Reminds me of our best family and Scouting adventures. They always started with a freak of nature and ended with laughter and lasting friendships and memories.

  7. A couple weeks back we attended a ward linger longer hosted by the bishopric. It was mostly subway deli sandwiches. Aside from wondering if the subway was purchased that Sunday, I thought it was nice for the bishopric to handle the food that way and take the stress off everyone’s plate.

    So if you were 5 minutes earlier, do you think they’d have avoided a fire and you’d all have food poisoning?

  8. Kent Gibb says:

    About 30 years ago, a ward party was planned and one of the sisters volunteered to make chili for all of us. That was all approved by the bishop and she started the chili on the church stove. It was all ready to serve by late morning so she turned off the heat and left to do other things. She came back later and the bishop arrived at the same time and tasted the chili. He said that it tasted off and when he heard the history of the chili being left for a number of hours without heat or refrigeration, he decided to ditch the chili and called up KFC for some chicken. All went well and we really enjoyed ourselves but it blew a big hole in the ward budget. The only casualty was the bishop; he was not at church the next day due to food poisoning. He was sick for a couple of days and that was only from a small spoon of the chili.
    A disaster averted due to the good taste buds of our bishop!

  9. I don’t care if Boyd Packer would consider this a Worthy FPS(tm), this story needs to be told in every sacrament meeting from now through The Millennium.

  10. The only casualty was the bishop; he was not at church the next day due to food poisoning.

    Yikes! Good call to enforce phytosanitary standards and ditch the chili though; it can be hard to be the guy who throws away “good” food, especially when it represents someone’s free-will offering.

    So if you were 5 minutes earlier, do you think they’d have avoided a fire and you’d all have food poisoning?

    If we would have started moving the chicken a few minutes earlier we would have definitely avoided the fire, but if I would have had to go pay first, then it wouldn’t have made a difference. It seems that things were hot enough that food poisoning would have been unlikely.

  11. SoCal Gal says:

    Great story! About thirty years ago we had just moved to San Diego. Our ward was having a dinner. I think it was just for adults. You know the kind where they try to make it a nice evening out without the kids. Somebody made chicken pot pies for the dinner. I declined to eat as I usually do unless I personally know the kitchen and hygiene of the person making the food. My husband on the other hand isn’t so picky. He was violently ill that night begging me to call poison control. I did to humor him. The answer was “just let it run through his system”. Now he takes my advice on what dishes are okay to eat at a pot luck.

  12. Maple Mom says:

    True story. My sister’s YSA ward planned a chili cookoff to take place between sessions of general conference (pre-internet; they were in the stake centre). Partway through the afternoon session, people started leaping from their seats and running to the bathrooms. They soon wound up at the nearby hospital with food poisoning. Net result? City health authorities swarmed all over the building and every church kitchen in the province was shut down. For the past 30 years, we have not been allowed to cook in our kitchens – only warm precooked foods.

  13. SoCal Gal and Maple Mom, I share the general skepticism of potlucks and prefer to focus on the company at such events and leave the eating for other times and places.

  14. peter – be that as it may, food poisoning is fairly common in restaurants, buffets, heavily regulated industries, home kitchens, uncooked produce, etc. I’m not sure I can recall getting sick at a potluck, but I know for sure I’ve been sick from a variety of health inspected restaurants with commercial kitchens.

    You’re named after the one who took part in the ultimate potluck afterall.

  15. sute, one of my first jobs was in a commercial kitchen, so I can endorse everything you said. But the caution I exercise around potlucks is the same caution I exercise around family, friends and strangers, so at least I’m not applying any double standards. As fate would have it, I actually had the most severe episode of food poisoning in my life just a few weeks before this potluck. Against my better judgment I ate something of sketchy provenance because of social pressure. So while pretty much every meal is a leap of faith, you can, and definitely should, stack the deck in your favor.

  16. It’s going to take me a lifetime to love as God loves, but a pretty good blueprint is in 1 John 4:20 “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. ” Loving those I can see is how I fulfill the Great Commandment. I don’t worry too much about offending the God I can’t see.

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