The Atlantic’s food channel recently posted an article entitled Jello Love: A Guide to Mormon Cuisine (my co-blogger kindly linked to it in the sidebar). The author lived in Utah for a time as child, and she knows whereof she speaks. The piece is charming, nostalgic and mostly reality-based. But I blog, therefore I quibble.
Classic Mormon fare seems to have crystallized as a cuisine in the 70s or 80s, though I couldn’t tell you why that’s so. In a lot of ways, its provenance is a bit of a mystery: I doubt that any of the dishes originated among Mormons—they tend to be familiar in the Midwest and South—and none of them have obvious connections to Mormon history, except for their suitability for ward potlucks. One might expect Mormon cooking to reflect our practice of storing three-month or year supplies of staple foods—and in reality, “food storage” meals incorporating beans, wheat, and powdered milk do rotate regularly across many Mormon dinner tables. But they don’t show up in the stable of “classic” Mormon foods.
The writer of the Atlantic piece characterizes Mormon cuisine as “bland,” “packaged,” “processed” “convenience foods”—but I think the article is self-refuting on these points, as the dishes noted really don’t fit these descriptions. Some ingredients are processed in the sense that they are canned or dried, but this is not a Sandra Lee-style convenience “homemade.” Nor, of course, are they of the enlightened, organic, local, Whole Foods ilk, as that food culture didn’t exist during the 70s and 80s.
These days, a ward potluck is more likely to feature an asparagus strata or a Mediterranean salmon pasta salad than a pan of funeral potatoes or a frog-eye salad. But these foods are still native to American Mormon culture, and beloved by many of us. I thought it would be fun to do a “best-practices” exercise and link to what I consider to be superior recipes for the quartet of dishes the piece highlights: Frog Eye Salad, Hawaiian Haystacks, Jello, and Funeral Potatoes. Plus a bonus trio of three more classic Mormon foods. Enjoy!
- Pretzel Jello Salad Jello is the sine qua non of Mormon cooking, or anyway its stereotype. It is especially notorious for its vegetable add-ins, in particular shredded carrots in green jello. (Hey, if you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it! I happen to love it.) This is probably an atavistic holdover from the days of aspic—savory meat suspended in gelatin—which graced many an American Sunday dinner in the 50s and 60s. A modern take on the savory-sweet jello concoction, the pretzel jello salad is a familiar species at Mormon gatherings.
- Hawaiian Haystacks I’ve never prepared this meal myself, but I’ve certainly consumed it. It’s quick, flexible, kid-friendly, and as healthful as the toppings you choose.
- Funeral Potatoes Perhaps the most beloved of the classics, and indeed present at most Mormon funerals, this heavy gratin is fatty and delicious. Controversies include: diced or shredded potatoes (doesn’t matter, I say); with or without chopped onions (with); and what flavor of canned cream soup (doesn’t matter). But beware the cheez whiz—if you come across a recipe that calls for processed cheese, you’ll know it’s a fake!
- Frog Eye Salad My personal favorite, this sweet pasta salad is a treat. Avoid recipes that call for a boxed instant pudding—much better to make the pudding binder yourself, as the recipe linked suggests. I omit the maraschino cherries, and have been known to improvise with fresh strawberries and other add ins. An especially delicious addition to Easter dinner, may I suggest.
- Zucchini Bread Backyard vegetable gardens are a part of Mormon culture, and we often have an abundance of zucchini during the summer. I’ve eaten stuffed zucchini, skillet zucchini with ground beef and cheese, and it’s a great substitute for eggplant in a moussaka. But the classic presentation is the zucchini bread.
- Mint Brownies These delicacies are original to the BYU bakery, and they are most delicious. Omit the walnuts, though.
- Homemade Rootbeer We don’t drink, but that doesn’t mean we can’t brew. Homemade (non-alcoholic, obviously) rootbeer is common at summertime parties. And it is gooood.
For this audience: what else belongs in the repertoire? What’s your best recipe for any of the above? Are there local Mormon cuisines from other parts of the world? Recipes (linked or pasted) are most welcome.