I was born in Provo, Utah. This is not an easy thing for me to admit. It is a shame that dogs me always despite the fact that I’ve lived the majority of my life only 45 miles away in Salt Lake City, a place I love. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding telling people where I was born because I’m ashamed of the fact that I was born a Mormon. Salt Lake City may be the technical headquarters of the Mormon Church, but Provo is its beating heart. I know that no one is to blame for the circumstances of their birth, and we don’t choose our cultural origins, but I feel shame nonetheless. I am envious of anyone who is lucky enough to have been born into a culture with traditions strongly rooted in cooking and eating. Alas, that is not my experience.
Utah is generally without culinary reputation. If it is known for anything, it is known for green Jell-O and teetotaling liquor laws. It is a high mountain food desert with the inevitable oasis here and there. And like its vast deserts to the south and west, Utah’s predominant Mormon communities are equally inhospitable to guests. As a non-member, one may initially receive invitations to church dinners or activities as a means of investigating whether you’d like to join the fold. But these invitations go cold the moment you politely decline the offer to learn about the Church or become a member.
Depending on the type of church gathering, a meal of sorts may be served. The food is almost always prepared by the “sisters” of the Church, whose energies are understandably overtaxed by children and other obligations. The resulting spread is practical and perfunctory. Casseroles are made en masse of the semi-homemade variety. You will almost certainly find store bought white rolls and ham served hot or cold depending on the formality of the occasion. There is usually a fruit or Jell-O salad and some kind of green salad assembled from large pre-mixed bags of lettuce obtained from Costco and served with bottled dressings that invariably include ranch, Italian, French, and the more modern addition of some kind of sweet vinaigrette such as raspberry or balsamic. Sweet is a dominant flavor in Mormon food. Consequently, dessert is plentiful. There are always a variety of sheet cakes, cookies and cupcakes. Mormon gatherings bear little resemblance to their neighborhood potluck cousins. Though casseroles abound, there is a sense of pride and one-upmanship in potluck cookery that doesn’t exist in Mormon fare. Mormons feed people frugally and efficiently. Everything is done with the goal of cleaning up quickly.
There is, however, one dish in the Mormon housewife’s repertoire that has achieved legendary status. It is a potato casserole known in Mormonese as funeral potatoes due to the fact that some form of this dish is ubiquitous at funerals and nearly every other church gathering where a meal is provided. When described to outsiders, funeral potatoes are often equated with potatoes au gratin. This is a grave slander upon the au gratin. Perhaps in their infancy funeral potatoes resembled the harmonious simplicity of a gratin made only of potato, butter, cream, and salt. But over the years something has gone terribly wrong, and the resultant Frankenstein is monstrous in both appearance and substance. As the name suggests, potatoes make up the base of the dish, although it has become less and less common to start with potatoes in the raw. Frozen cubes or hash browns are the more popular choice. They are mixed with varying amounts of any and/or all of the following: butter, margarine, cream, sour cream, cream cheese, milk, cheddar cheese, cheddar jack cheese, cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, and possibly just cream of soup. The entire melange is poured into a greased casserole dish and sprinkled generously with a crunchy topping that might include any combination of bread crumbs, corn flakes, potato chips, crackers, or the like. Garlic salt is frequently in the mix, and the more adventurous cook might dare a final flourish of chives.
As a native Utahn I did not form a cultural identity centered around a communal table. For Mormons there is no Feast of the Seven Fishes, no Passover Seder, no Sunday barbecue. Each community meal is indistinguishable from the last. And holidays meld into each other without distinction. Fortunately for me, I have been blessed by three graces in life, and hopefully my own cooking is mostly unaffected and uninhibited by my religious origins.
The first grace is my mother, Margaret. My mother is star dust. She is the root of the root. She is the first and the last. Her smell fills me up and envelopes me. And her cooking is the milk and honey of my life. My mother is descended from Mormon pioneers who settled in rural Utah on her mother’s side and in southern Arizona on her father’s side. Her family’s cooking traditions prove that if you dip just below the surface of modern Mormon cookery, a subset of 1950s American convenience cooking, you will find a treasure trove of delicious, lovingly executed dishes. Those I most associate with my mother are homemade vinaigrettes and stews, her grandmother’s honey wheat bread, lemon meringue pie, her father’s pit barbecue, pecan pie, and mustardy potato salad.
The second grace is my paternal grandmother, Rose. She died when I was six, but her cooking left an indelible mark on me. I seek her lentil soup in the way Psyche sought Cupid. I would happily sort a million grains of rice for one last taste of it. Rose was a first-generation Italian-American. Her cooking repertoire was limited, but she was adept at the dishes she knew. My first food memories belong to her. She, like every Italian mother, made the best red sauce. I haven’t tasted its equal since she passed, and I likely never will.
The third grace is my husband, Glade. He helped me to see the natural beauty of my home state, and gave me the confidence and encouragement to learn to cook at age thirty-one. He has limitless patience for my experiments and I rely on his palate and forthrightness.
As I write this, it is the weekend before Thanksgiving, a holiday entangled in tradition and cultural expectation. I love Thanksgiving. It is the only true feast day I knew growing up. As a kid I loved the variety of dishes and the conviviality of a large table surrounded by family and friends. It made me feel the way I wished church gatherings felt, but didn’t. I keep thinking about those Mormon funeral potatoes and how they’re a part of every celebratory, mournful, and mundane meal. They’ll continue to remain on the table until people find the courage to express their shame, or their boredom, or their distaste. Dishes lose their savor when they are served out of obligation. Funeral potatoes are emblematic of this truth.