Mastering the art of Mormon cooking

virtual-jelloThe 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.

69 comments for “Mastering the art of Mormon cooking

  1. Walnuts in mint brownies? Now _that_ is heresy. Mormons may not have doctrine, but by golly we’ve got baking orthodoxies!

  2. Patheos will have a good counter-point for this next week by my wife, who also happens to have grown up in Utah and is in the author’s same program at NYU. Almost the same. Christy’s in the PhD program in Food Studies, but the Atlantic author the MA.

  3. I happen to think that the Lion House Cinnamon Rolls deserve a special mention, just because of the sheer mental stress that Deseret Book causes me every time I walk into one of their stores where the cinnamon roll smell is piped out. Cruel and unusual punishment, indeed. I must quibble a bit with Ben S, as the doctoral and master’s program at NYU are largely the same for the first year, but hey, husbands are allowed to pull the academic trump card for their spouses occasionally, right?

    As for funeral potatoes, they really are better when made with actual home cooked hashbrowns.

    In all reality, though, is not the quintessential Mormon food ice cream?

  4. I know, Kris, seriously! Walnuts and mint? Yuck! (unless you’re making a mint pesto.)

    C Jones, excellent call.

    Ben S., I can’t wait to see it. I’m sure it’ll put my post to shame.

  5. Christy, I hope you’ll include a best recipe/technique for the all-homemade funeral potatoes! And yes on the ice cream—I grew up making ice cream at home in a hand-crank freezer with the rock salt and everything. Nowadays lots of folks have fancy home machines, but back in the 70s and 80s do you think homemade ice cream had a special purchase in Mormon culture?

  6. I dunno, queuno. I didn’t grow up in Utah, and I encountered all those foods in a church context, as I do now in another part of the country, also not Utah (and not Mormon corridor). That is not to say that your Mormons don’t rock the fried turkey and grits too, though.

  7. Talk to Relief Society sisters somewhat older than Rosalynde and they’ll almost certainly have some still-used recipes for whole wheat bread and whole wheat pancakes that they first learned how to make when Wheat for Man was a Big Thing in Relief Society.

    There’s also a family of using-up-the-Thanksgiving-leftovers recipes that are ubiquitous in Mormon culture, often called “turkey divan.”

    Another set of savory Jello-based recipes spread through the Relief Society networks in the ’60s and ’70s that are still used, at least in my extended family and older ward: Aspics (beyond the meat ones mentioned) like tomato aspic (tomato juice or V8, lemon Jello, vinegar and herbs), “sea-foam coleslaw” (lime Jello, shredded cabbage, celery seed, onion, and mayonnaise), confetti relish molds (lemon Jello, sour cream, vinegar, beef bouillon, brightly colored chopped veggies), and jellied beet salad show up at ward potlucks and Sunday dinners.

  8. really, is there anything else Mormons are good at making (that is of their own creation or signature) than Jello?

  9. Yeah, such delicacies should definitely be labelled as UTAH Mormon cooking. We’ve lived in places where Mormon cooking consisted of stuff like a branch shrimp boil, and a Beast Feast with game hunted by ward members.

  10. Ardis, interesting comments, thanks! Breadmaking is still more or less common among my LDS mom peers, and I think you’re right that there’s still a special association between wheat grinders/wheat bread and Mormon culture. And yes! Turkey/chicken divan—that’s a classic. My mother-in-law, from Burley Idaho, makes a great rendition, but she’s always called it “Chicken Divine.”

    That set of aspic recipes is pure gold–thanks for contributing them. I’m fascinated by aspic.. The sea-foam coleslaw may just have to come to my kitchen one of these days.

  11. Naismith, again, I can vouch for the fact that they are found and enjoyed among Mormons far beyond Utah’s borders. But that certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t other regional Mormon cuisines! A question: do the shrimp boil and Beast Feast get inflected by the Mormon ward community in any way, tweaked or adapted, or is it pretty much the same as the larger regional traditions?

  12. Rosalynde,
    I’m going to have to third the “Utah Mormon” thing. I had never eaten funeral potatoes until maybe two or three years ago (I treat I hope never to repeat). Of course, my parents, both active members, were also both born in California, and my mom learned to cook on her own, not from her mom (who, nonetheless, I don’t think came from Utah). And most members in my age cohort that I know cook and eat based on Food Network/Bon Appetit/Gourmet/other pretentious foodie sources.

    The one exception to the non-Utah-Mormonness of my eating was, growing up, my mom would make fried bread dough that she called scones. These scones are unrelated to actual scones (the best of which seem to come from the Once Upon a Tart cookbook—no dryness when there’s more than a tablespoon of butter per scone). Anecdotally, it seems like this odd misnamed scone is a Mormon (or a Utah) thing, since the only people I know who make them and call them scones are Mormons, but I would love to know the derivation. (They’re actually a lot like English muffins, only more fried.)

  13. Which is, it may be that funeral potatoes are enjoyed outside of Utah, but the only people I know who have ever made them, and the only people I know who have fond memories of them, grew up in Utah.

  14. If you dare —


    1 3-oz. package lime gelatin
    ¾ tsp. salt
    1 cup boiling water
    ¾ cup cold water
    2 tblsp. vinegar
    ? cup mayonnaise
    dash of pepper
    4 tsp. grated onion
    ¾ tsp. celery seed
    2 cups finely shredded cabbage

    Dissolve gelatin and salt in hot water. Add cold water, vinegar, mayonnaise, pepper, onion and celery seed. Blend thoroughly with egg beater. Chill until slightly thickened. Fold in shredded cabbage. Pour into individual molds or into a one-quart mold and chill until firm.

    Yield: 6 to 8 servings

  15. But I blog, therefore I quibble.

    Best line ever. I think I could have lived my whole life without ever learning that meat in jello was an actual dish and not just a joke.

    I hate Hawaiian haystacks.

  16. Stephanie, it isn’t “meat in [sugary, fruit-flavored] Jello,” it’s meat in [savory, herb-y or bouillon-y] gelatin, which, after all, is derived from bones. And it isn’t Mormon, it’s a common feature of American and European cuisines. If that still turns your stomach, I recommend that you not visit France anytime soon.

  17. Seafoam coleslaw? Wow! (and I am a HUGE coleslaw lover, especially if it’s KFC)

    Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of anything on this list except hawaiian haystacks. Jello, casseroles, and mint just don’t do it for me. Of course, I respect the rights of other members to consume how, where, and what they may.

  18. I admit it. As a Mormon who has spent the majority of his 27 years on this planet in the heart of Illinois, I have no idea what most of these quintessential bits of Mormon fare are, with the exception of the lime jello with carrots (something I have heard of but never actually witnessed) and funeral potatoes.

    I don’t think of zucchini bread as Mormon fare, probably because the first time I had it was when I was 14 and it was served by my Catholic great-aunt in Pennsylvania who refused to share the recipe with anyone until my brother Anton sweet-talked it out of her.

    I’m with Christy S on the ice cream bit, though. I haven’t been to a Mormon home yet that doesn’t strive to keep an ample supply.

  19. Sam B., scones are a great call. My mother made them too, and with refried beans and cheese on top we called them “Navajo tacos” (resembling the meal of the same name served in the Cougareat of yore). Whether there was a connection to actual Navajo culture I do not know.

    On the Utah thing, I’m perfectly willing to concede that there is a geographical center of gravity around the Mormon corridor, IDaho, Utah and Arizona. It’s hard to imagine that an ethnic culture of any kind could develop without strong geographical localization at some point in history. Then, as you suggest, the outmigration carries it beyond. This to me strengthens the argument that it is an ethnic Mormon cuisine, not weakens it. And not to beat the dead horse, of course. It’s actually a very interesting question of culture formation.

  20. Ardis, I love it. When I make it, I promise to blog the results. Maybe I will even bring it to a ward potluck.

  21. I understand that these dishes may be seen outside the intermountain west, when Mormons from that area bring their cuisine along when they move outside. Just as our local church potlucks include all kinds of great dishes from Honduras and Columbia, and we have an annual Filipino pig roast to which people from the entire stake plus lots of nonmembers attend.

    But I’ve never such dishes served at church functions, and they’re not listed in “Deseret Recipes,” the church’s cookbook. (Except for zuchini bread, which as other mentioned, is not unique to Mormondom.) I live in an area that has a large percentage of converts.

    And yes, things like a shrimp boil and beast feast are local as well. One of the great things is that generally the men do all the food procurement and most of the cooking, although depending on local tradition the sisters may bring sides and deserts.

  22. Okay, what bugs me about this is claiming anything good as “Mormon.”

    Zuchini bread was not invented in Utah. Yes, Navajo tacos exist, at least they are served on the Hogan restaurant on the rez and in the Smithsonian museum cafeteria (which regional foods were well researched to be authentic).

  23. Oh how sad I am to read this post. When I grew up the Mormon casserole was king___KING!
    I still have my mother’s RS cookbooks. One has 30 Tuna Casserole alone.

  24. Stereotypes aside, the “Mormon food” I am most likely to encounter is the Official Salad of the Relief Society: a mix of dark greens, dried cranberries, sliced almonds, and a homemade vinaigrette. Served with rolls, butter, lemonade, and a kinda-fancy-but-easy-to-make-for-a-crowd dessert. It is probably served at 90% of RS functions in these parts. And it isn’t a bad meal.

  25. Julie, throw in some mandarin oranges and very finely sliced red onions, and that’s a salad that is served very often at the Church Office Building cafeteria. I wonder if that has had any effect on its dissemination, or whether the COB chef tasted it somewhere else and brought it here.

  26. I have a couple of Relief Society cookbooks, like Bob mentioned. The only one that comes to hand seems to be, curiously enough, the San Diego 13th Ward Relief Society cookbook from nine years ago.

    Is California outside the Mormon corridor? Very little in the cookbook seems to be influenced by the super-abundance of year-round produce or the proximity of the ocean (very few recipes for seafood) or the proximity of Mexico (a couple of good Hispanic sisters in the ward submitted recipes that include Cream of Whatever Soup).

    Out of the 82 recipes in the “Main Dishes” section, 30 involve Cream of Whatever Soup. Out of the 11 “Vegetable and Side Dish” recipes, exactly zero seem to call for fresh local produce, although the “Salad” section has a recipe called “Strawberry Fields Salad” which is probably local and uses strawberries and jicama. A recipe for Funeral Potatoes is called “Party Potatoes.” Several recipes seem to be influenced by missionary service in foreign locations. (Sticky rice, etc.)

    It might be slightly tangential to mention that my reaction to seeing this ward cookbook and to living in Southern California for a few years was to severely limit the use of “heritage” foods like Cream of Whatever Soup and jello and to greatly increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

  27. Rosalynde, genius post. :)

    A few years back I read an article where Bible Belt Baptists took credit for the love of all things gelatinous. Do we win?

    We only eat jello on Thanksgiving in a cranberry raspberry salad, and adding pretzels sounds disgusting, but I’ve had the green jello/cottage cheese/pineapple/walnut/carrot thing. One of my college roommates made it (not from Utah, from Wheaton, Illinois!). I called it Carpet Padding Jello.

    We eat Hawaiin Haystacks about once per month. Love those.

    Zucchini bread? Ack! I hate bread and cake with chunks of stuff in it. (Except chocolate. Any form of chocolate is good in my book.) But my mom used to make a chocolate zucchini cake that was wondrous. Obviously is was the excess chocolate that made the shredded veggies in cake acceptable. :)

  28. #30: You are right about the Cream-of-Whatever soup My cookbooks go back to the 30s & 40s. But when the canned Cream soups came along in the 50s__then there was no holding back for RS sisters from their role of casserole makers.

  29. Researcher (30),
    Probably part of it is that a large part of any San Diego ward consists of Utahns who, for whatever reason, moved west. That said, my California food upbringing focused largely on fresh and seafood.

    Rosalynde (23),
    I’ll quit beating the dead horse after this, since I’m interested in the weird foods others will (figuratively) bring to the table, too. I buy the outmigration and all, but I’m not ready to see the food as being culturally Mormon. Part of it is that I don’t accept that Mormon culture is formed in Utah, even if it once was.

    Where am I coming from? I’m a third-generation California Mormon, and none of the ubiquitous-in-discussions-of-Mormon-food were common (or extant) in my home or in ward activities. Moreover, my wife’s mother was a convert to the Church from the midwest, and her dad wasn’t a member. She was also completely unfamiliar (until post-college in New York City among lots of Utah transplants) with these foods. That suggests to me a regional identification rather than a religious/ethnic identification.

    I think of it kind of the same way we eat Italian food, not Catholic, even though Italy is largely made up of Catholics. But if we were to call Italian food Catholic food, you can be almost certain the French would object. As would the Irish, and possibly even the Mexicans. There is independently religious food–Jewish comes to mind–but Jewish food is subject to certain dietary constraints, and, moreover, could probably better be described as Eastern European/Lower East Side of Manhattan. (I had a delicious kosher meal in a coworker’s home the other day that, other than being made with kosher ingredients, had nothing to do with Eastern European Jewish immigrants.)

    So I don’t see “Mormon” and “Utahn” as being synonymous, and I see the foods being put forward as uniquely Mormon have more connection to Utah and people recently departed from Utah than I do to any Mormon culture. (As a food snob, I’d add: maybe if the foodstuffs were better, they’d have more ability to colonize Mormonism rather than the merely recently-departed.)

  30. Sam, do you feel the same way about other aspects of ethnic culture, as well? Do you see any possibility for an ethnic Mormon identity? Or do you just feel that foodways, in particular, don’t adhere to Mormonism? I’d think that you’d want to claim the funeral potatoes, at least. :) (And let me reiterate that I, at least, am not claiming that these foods are *uniquely* Mormon; they’re widely familiar in the midwest.)

    By the way, I’m from California, too, lived there most of my life and currently live in the midwest, if that gives me any more credibility in your eyes. :)

  31. Researcher, that is funny—I have exactly that same cookbook, were we in that ward together? In fact, the banana bread recipe I use is in that book, so I open it frequently. Skimming the index, I see three or four jello recipes, a zucchini casserole, and a dozen or so chicken casseroles, which should warm the heart of Bob. :)

  32. “That suggests to me a regional identification rather than a religious/ethnic identification.”

    Exactly. And it makes those of us who don’t know what Hawaiian Haystacks are feel like outsiders, yet again. That my not be the intention, but it is the effect.

    I personally hope that the church NEVER develops an “ethnic Mormon identity.”

    As of a few years ago, almost two-thirds of LDS (64%) are first-generation members.,5232,23-1-646-4,00.html

    I hope we keep growing and baptizing folks from all over the globe, letting them continue to celebrate their own local culture as long as it doesn’t conflict with gospel standards.

    The fact that the gospel works so well all across the globe is a good thing, not bad IMO. If you like your funeral potatoes, fine–but please don’t claim that they are somehow related to a Mormon culture that doesn’t exist.

    I have had the salad that Julie mentioned, but I thought it was just because the ingredients are so cheap at Sam’s Club.

  33. Maybe a focus on recipes for specific dishes is a little bit of a distraction in exploring a Mormon cuisine.

    Virtually every issue of the Young Woman’s Journal from the first part of the century (but seldom after 1929 when that journal merged with the Improvement Era) and every issue of the Relief Society Magazine through 1970 had a food article. Until the ’60s, those articles were seldom “recipes” in the sense of “measure this much of X” and “stir in this much of Y.” They were instead focused on foods (usually grains) that suited the Word of Wisdom, or techniques for preparing dried beans/cheap cuts of meat/foods that didn’t need refrigeration when you went to the canyon, or methods of cooking (fireless cookers, double boilers). These columns did often include detailed instructions and specific measurements, but the emphasis was more on learning HOW to cook in general rather than in learning a specific dish to show off at your next potluck. That kind of instruction was what was taught in pre-block meeting RS homemaking meetings, too — methods over recipes, almost always.

    I’m wondering if looking at the principles taught by those features might not tell us something more about Mormon cooking than these recipes do.

  34. “And it makes those of us who don’t know what Hawaiian Haystacks are feel like outsiders, yet again.”

    Er, really, Naismith? Is your sense of identification with the Saints and the gospel really so fragile? This was a single, light-hearted, clearly tongue-in-cheek post, not an ongoing theme in Mormon discourse. I’m not from Utah, and there are any number of Mormon-typical practices and artifacts that are foreign to me; I think it takes a pretty strenuous reading to see this post as somehow policing insider-outsider boundaries.

    As for an ethnic Mormon culture, well, I just disagree with you there. I’m not interested in a set of ideas and practices that have no purchase in the folkways of a faith community—that kind of identity is simply too thin to be satisfying. I fully expect and hope that any number of hybrid Mormon ethnicities have developed around the world and in North America.

  35. Ardis, that’s a good point. I was just responding to the original article, which singled out those four dishes and which, as you point out, can be distracting in their particularity. A more critical and historically informed construction of Mormon food as a category would be most welcome!

  36. Fun thread. Have to say I love funeral potatoes although I only get them at funerals because I won’t bother to make them.

    Absolutley, Rosalynde re: hybrid Mormon ethnicities. In Boca our ward was about a third of European descent, a third various South American (particularly Brazilian), and a third Haitian. I don’t know the actual breakdown, but the YW were about equally divided.

    It was a great ward and we learned to kind of share cultures to create a new one. What started as “Brazil Night” (a weekly event at the church that, seriously, only allowed hispanics) became (with some nudging) more of an open, culture-sharing, ward party. And everything worked it’s way — from whatever culture — into being gospel appropriate entertainment.

    And Naismith, just click on the link for haystacks above and you’ll immediately be an “insider”! Yum!

  37. Re 35: I cringe to admit that the zucchini casserole you mention is mine. No zucchini deserves to be treated like that. But your cheese enchilada recipe is very good. I’ve made it many a time.

  38. 41: That just cries out for more exploration. Rosalynde, since Researcher will probably never quite find the time to get around to it (wink wink), would you consider sharing that zucchini casserole with the rest of us? “Little White Lab Rat” at Keepapitchinin just might be compelled to make it and report on it!

  39. Rosalynde,
    Not that it matters, but you certainly don’t need to burnish your cred in my eyes :).

    I like your questions—I’d like to think there is a possible ethnic Mormon identity, although, back in my days of wanting to be a writer, I couldn’t establish what it was. (That is, most “Mormon” literature largely deals with rural Utah/Arizona. I can’t figure out how to write a New York Mormon or Chicago Mormon or San Diego Mormon literary novel that includes an essential Mormonness without making it some sort of forced, didactic Mormonness. I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that I haven’t really read it, and certainly am not imaginative enough to create it.) Still, I think there probably is something that could be reflected in culture, art, music, or something.

    Foodways, I think, is harder. And it’s not just a Mormon thing—as Pollan points out, in the U.S., eating norms aren’t passed on from parent to child. My mom was an incredible home cook, but I’ve broken almost entirely with the style of food I was raised on. Food seems to me nowadays to be more movement than ethnic. That is, I base to a large extent what I cook on the kinds of things I eat at nice restaurants, recipes in the NY Times, Bon Appetit, and Gourmet, and other such things. I probably largely (though by no means exclusively) eat a Whole Foods and/or locavore diet (which is essentially California Cuisine from 30 years ago, or Savoy in New York from 10 years ago). None of it is informed by my Mormonness and, other than the fact that I was exposed to most of it in New York, it’s not really regionally informed either (I try to eat local wherever I happen to live).

    I just don’t see Mormonism as having the ability to transmit food norms beyond WoW prohibitions. Partly it’s because what is put forward as Mormon food isn’t really very good (you’ll have to forgive me, but you can’t make anything worth eating with traditional Mormon-style food storage). And partly it’s because I don’t see any significant means of horizontal transmission—I can see passing the food on to children, but it doesn’t generally get picked up by converts. If it were truly Mormon ethnic food, I would think it would colonize (the tables of) people who entered the faith, rather than just the descendants of Utahns.

  40. And I guess the other thing is, is there a religion you consider to have an ethnic food? The only ones that leap to my mind are Buddhists and Jews. And I’m not sure about Buddhists. And Jewish food in the U.S. is significantly different than Ashkenazic Jewish food, mostly for regional reasons. (That is, most of our Jewish food derives from Eastern Europe, while Ashkenazic Jewish food looks a whole lot like Mexican food.) So I’m not entirely convinced that religion, as opposed to region, is a significant transmitter of foodways.

  41. Naismith, I’m worried that when you say “a Mormon culture that doesn’t exist” you mean that there is no Mormon culture.

    I do understand the frustration that you and Sam B seem to have with the assumption that everything as it is done in Utah is “Mormon culture;” I too grew up outside of Utah (albeit to parents from Utah) and I don’t like a lot of Utah traditions, and really don’t want want them to be considered “Mormon culture” — or at least not the culture that I practice.

    If “Mormon culture” is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes” the Mormon people, then I do think we at least have a set of Mormon ‘sub-cultures’ in each major culture around the globe. In a sense, whenever an attitude, value, goal or practice is shared by a majority of Mormons (and perhaps even a significant minority, when the item is unique enough), and not also by a group that includes those same Mormons, I think we can say that we have a Mormon cultural element. Thus, Fast Sunday, a shared Mormon practice, is an element of Mormon culture. [It doesn’t matter that our religion mandates it — the religion itself and its practices are a cultural element.]

    Whether and to what degree these foods are part of Mormon culture depends on information I really don’t have. Clearly those who grew up in Utah think they are, and many who grew up outside of the Mormon Corridor disagree. Until someone brings enough evidence to show otherwise, its all just opinion anyway.

    But we should also note that these things can change. If I publish a Mormon cookbook in Portuguese that includes these recipes translated and reconfigured to match what is available to the Brazilian and Portuguese, and this cookbook becomes so popular that many Brazilian and Portuguese Church members adopt these recipes, wouldn’t you have to say that these were now part of Mormon culture?

  42. Kent,
    If you wrote the Mormon cookbook in Brazil and it became popular among Brazilian Saints, I’d say that certainly was part of Mormon culture. The big problem I have is, the Patheos post linked to in the OP essentially says the author moved to Utah, saw these four foods, often at LDS activities, and concludes, therefore that these foods must be Mormon. Many of us are responding, No, they’re not, they’re Utah regional. Occasionally they’ll show up outside of Utah, but always, in my experience, from children of Utah.

    But in your hypothetical, the food has transmitted outside of parent-to-child as a result of Mormonism. That would say Mormon culture to me; nobody has asserted, though, that these alleged Mormon foods have spread outside of the parent-to-child transmission.

  43. This is a good thread. I want to add a few food items that I think have been overlooked (perhaps because they are peculiar to my relatives).

    Some of my Utah roots go back to middle Utah, Carbon and Emery county, and for as many generations as this family line existed in the state they have had annual, late summer lamb-fries (deep fried cuts of lamb). Back in the old days, my people were sheep herders and they would have mutton-fries because it was more economical to eat the old and decrepit than the young. My relatives now no longer deal in sheep but they still have a lamb slaughtered for the event. To prepare the lamb two dutch ovens are filled with vegetable oil and brought to frying temperature (nowadays over gas burners, but in my childhood I remember it being done over fires) and the cuts of meat are deep fried (everyone of my relatives prefers crispy lamb, or so my grandma asserts). The meat is seasoned with salt and pepper only.

    In a separate fryer homemade scones are also fried and they are eaten with butter and honey. These are the two indispensable units of the lamb-fry. To these are always added fresh corn (usually from somebody’s garden) and dutch oven potatoes. Also, if the lamb-fry is held late enough in August, Green River melons are served in abundance. I recall that often the date of the annual lamb fry was set to match Green River’s annual melon festival (which I once attended–it was amazing).

    The final item is nothing special but it was the coolest thing to me as a kid: two coolers full of soda and ice, not Sprite or 7up, but Coca-cola and Pepsi in glass bottles. These days the soda is canned but I still feel a thrill when I fish through the icy water to get my Coke.

    I don’t know whether any other Utah/Mormon people do this, but as a Mormon kid raised on the east coast, the yearly pilgrimage to the deserts of Utah was epitomized by what I thought was the height of Mormonness: stuffing myself on fried lamb, scones, melon, and Coke in a bottle. This summer my siblings and their spouses and kids are all gathering from various states for the lamb-fry and my newly-married-into-the-family brother-in-law is going to learn the secrets of the lamb-frying in order to carry on the tradition. Awesome.

  44. Oh, and in case you are wondering what in the world one does with two dutch ovens worth of post-lamb-fry oil, the oil is added to a vat of other oils and rendered fats in order to make home-made soap. Best soap in the world.

  45. There is a little-known gem of a book called _Saints Well Seasoned_ about Mormons and food. It is a great read.

  46. Yes there was a Mormon Culture Food. It was ‘comfort food’, it was ‘peasant food’, it was_ how to feed 10 kids_cheap food.
    Oh how my Mom loved her gas stove in CA over her wood one in ID! Meat loaf, potato salad, ham and beans, rice with whatever, peach cobblers, etc.

  47. oudenos, the annual mutton fry was a staple of both Mormon and Gentile (so, I guess, Utah, or at least western-sheepherder) culture in Piute County, Utah through at least the ’80s. Don’t know if it continues, and don’t know if it contained the other elements you mention. Sounds like a great family/community feast.

  48. “Er, really, Naismith? Is your sense of identification with the Saints and the gospel really so fragile?”

    It really was for me in the first 10 years, but hopefully it is not nowadays for new converts, since President Hinckley tried to emphasize convert retention and new programs make their assimilation easier.

    I missed most of my first General Conference because I didn’t realize it was available by TV/radio. I didn’t do tithing settlement the first few years because I didn’t know about it–everyone else just knew to sign up. I wasn’t sure who “the brethren” were (for a while I thought they were the sons of King Mosiah). They sang songs in Relief Society that weren’t in the hymnbook and I didn’t know (Primary songs, that “everyone” knows…) When I got engaged, our wedding nearly had to be postponed because I couldn’t get a temple recommend since in two years no clerk had bothered to initiate creation of a membership record for me. There were just a lot of things I didn’t know, and I felt like an outsider.

    At that stage, worrying about a “Mormon culture” would be just one more thing I was failing at because I just didn’t know.

    “Naismith, I’m worried that when you say “a Mormon culture that doesn’t exist” you mean that there is no Mormon culture.”

    I don’t think there is a Mormon culture. Because in my observation, I think the differences in “attitudes, values, goals, and practices” between individual Mormons are much greater than any shared “attitudes, values, goals, and practices” EXCEPT the religious basis of same. Sure you can separate out fast Sunday and not shopping on Sunday as cultural since they are a behavior, but they are empty and meaningless without the religious basis.

    Julie, I love “Saints Well Seasoned,” at least the few stories I read. Scott Card’s essay on Brazilian food is a classic; it is so funny and true. That essay was what motivated me to have surgery so that I could eat food again.

  49. Naismith, I think your definition of “culture” is suspect.

    You said “Sure you can separate out fast Sunday and not shopping on Sunday as cultural since they are a behavior, but they are empty and meaningless without the religious basis.”

    The problem with this is that religion IS a cultural element. Just because the motivation for a behavior is religious doesn’t make it not cultural.

    In addition, your insistence that the culture not have a religious basis is, IMO nonsensical. How can a group united by a religion NOT have a culture with a religious basis? Most, if not all cultural expressions are bound to have a religious basis, aren’t they?

    But I should also point out that there are Mormon cultural elements that go beyond things required by religion. We have and entire industry (involving hundreds of companies and participants) pumping out Mormon products that are sold throughout the U.S. and in much of the English-speaking world. [We have to, I think, restrict our examination of Mormon culture to the English-speaking world because the problem of transmission across language barriers.] Many of those products, like them or not, are well-known enough and particular to Mormonism enough to constitute a Mormon culture.

    As Sam B (46) correctly, I think, points out food may not be part of this culture. But, the culture DOES exist.

  50. To get back to food, has anyone seen any attempts to transform these traditional dishes into something more modern? Or to fuse them with the cuisines of other cultures?

    One thing that I think we sometimes forget is that cultural elements are created all the time. If, as Sam B (46) suggests, there isn’t a Mormon food, it could certainly be created in the future – perhaps through my (fictional) Brazilian cookbook?

    Theoretically, such transformed dishes might be unique enough to become (if adopted widely among Mormons) a true Mormon cuisine. [A rich fantasy, I know.]

  51. Kent: At least for my Mom, a cassorle queen, she picked up quickly from other Cultures in CA. We now eat taco cassorals, talmale pie cassorles, enchilada cassorles. Baking bread was somewhat replaced by a little old Mexica lady who handmade tortillas on a rock near our home.
    Part of the problem carrying on the Utah/Idaho Mormon food culture in CA, was it was too damn hot to bake bread and cassorles in CA. (And fewer 10 kid families).

  52. Bob, I was more looking for transformations of the actual recipes, instead of changing one menu for another.

    Did anyone change the Utah/Idaho Mormon food into something different because of the change in geography? Perhaps “funeral tortillas”? Or funeral potatoes made with a tomato sauce base instead of cream of whatever soup?

    These may sound gross, but then I remember when peanut butter and chocolate together was considered gross by most people. Until you try mixing and transforming things, you never know if it is good or not.

    Of course, in the U.S., if your recipe is successful, you label it the latest in fusion cuisine and charge $30 or more a plate for it!! [GRIN]

  53. Actually, Researcher (30), now that I think of it, John Thorne’s article “Conflicted About Casseroles” (apparently originally appearing in Simple Cooking, but I’ve got it in Best Food Writing 2004) suggests that Cream of Whatever Casserole swept the U.S. (for various reasons, including Campbell’s soups and the ubiquity of new homes) during the 50s. So conceivably, if most of the contributors to the San Diego 13th Ward RS cookbook were of a certain age, that might explain why they were so invested in casseroles (and, because many people seem to get stuck in a style of cooking and not change it, might explain why they didn’t adopt the areas fresh and seafood. It’s also worth noting that San Diego is the most Midwestern of California cities.)

  54. “The problem with this is that religion IS a cultural element. Just because the motivation for a behavior is religious doesn’t make it not cultural.”

    Um, well, I guess I am having a hard time following your definition of what is uniquely Mormon culture.

    For more than a year after my third daughter’s birth, no babies were born in our ward. So I didn’t have access to a ward playgroup; instead, I organized a group of moms from various religious backgrounds, who met weekly. They all had college degree and years of workplace experience; they had each come to the decision to be a fulltime mom for various reasons, with a talk by Pres. Benson having no influence whatsoever.

    So while some consider toddler playgroups to be part of their “Mormon cultural experience” it was not for me. I had shared values with these amazing women that were not based on religion.

    “In addition, your insistence that the culture not have a religious basis is, IMO nonsensical. How can a group united by a religion NOT have a culture with a religious basis?”

    I simply find the differences between individual Mormons to be far greater than the similarities that unite us. I regularly have the experience of reading a Blogernaccle essay that I simply can’t relate to nor share the sentiments. Those that start out with something like, “We take pride in….” “We want our children to….” “Of course we should….” A lot of times I just shake my head and think, not me. Yet those individuals seem to think that they are reflecting on a “shared value” of “Mormon culture.”

    This has nothing to do with my lack of faith or activity. I live the gospel, I’m active in the church, I just don’t share some of those things that other people find essential to their Mormon culture.

    Take your example of fast Sunday. There are wide differences in the patterns of LDS fasting, all of which follow the church guidelines (since those guidelines are pretty flexible). In some church units, they have a dinner before the Relief Society general broadcast, because most folks eat dinner Saturday night and fast until Sunday night. Other places, folks skip Saturday supper, so they don’t want such activities scheduled. People used to the tradition of the dinner may feel that a part of their Mormon culture is ripped away when they move to a place that doesn’t do that.

    “Most, if not all cultural expressions are bound to have a religious basis, aren’t they?”

    But if the culture takes on a life of its own, it can overshadow the religious practice that is really more important. Faith leads to salvation, tasty funeral potatoes do not. Look at the country of Israel, which is based on Jewish traditions, but only a minority of the population are religiously observant (I’ve heard estimates of 17-30%).

    “If I publish a Mormon cookbook in Portuguese that includes these recipes translated and reconfigured to match what is available to the Brazilian and Portuguese, and this cookbook becomes so popular that many Brazilian and Portuguese Church members adopt these recipes, wouldn’t you have to say that these were now part of Mormon culture?”

    I cannot imagine what arrogance would bring you to publish a Mormon cookbook in Portuguese. Why anyone would inflict a cream-of casserole on these people, as if it were preferable to the pressure-cooked range-fed beef that we had at ward dinners? Also, the translation across cultures is not as simple as we often assume. The year I lived there, they really struggled to make sense of the manuals which translated verbatim but not across cultures. I remember a lesson on meal planning, with a story about a woman being “frantic” at 5:30 p.m. The sisters couldn’t figure out her problem, since they don’t eat dinner until 8 p.m. and just serve rice and beans every night.

    In April 95ish General Conference, President Faust said,
    “We do not lose our identity in becoming members of this church. We become heirs to the kingdom of God, having joined the body of Christ and spiritually set aside some of our personal differences to unite in a greater spiritual cause. We say to all who have joined the Church, keep all that is noble, good, and uplifting in your culture and personal identity.”

    So we are supposed to keep our local cultures, I thought.

    Isn’t it enough to live the gospel? Why do we have to add on cultural rules and expectations on top of it?

  55. “Conflicted About Casseroles” Sam B.? That’s a fun title. I found out recently that my kids didn’t even know what a casserole was, so I must not be too conflicted about casseroles.

    My casserole and jello recipes are from my grandmothers (raised their children in the 1950s) by way of my mother. The San Diego ward was a combination of settled families and graduate student families, and included a whole range of ages from just married to senior citizen.

    Besides the time in California and that ward cookbook, one major thing that changed my family’s eating habits was the book A Change of Heart (Daniel Levy) about the Framingham Heart Study. The author had some pithy things to say about the post-war American diet and its influence on our rates of heart disease and diabetes and hypertension.

    I remember how scandalized my mother was about ten years ago when her ward published a Relief Society cookbook and a new brother in the ward — a medical doctor of some sort — stood up in church and told the ward that if they ate like this, they would all be suffering greatly in the years to come from heart disease and other effects of eating this type of diet. That is a prediction that has sadly enough come true over the past decade.

  56. All health issues aside, does anyone have a recipe for the Navajo fry bread “scones” mentioned in #23 and #26? BYU food= good times… in moderation. I think you could call almost any of those old recipes from the Cougareat (circa 1990 at least) traditional “Mormon Food”, although I had never had them prior to my college days out west. Grasshopper shake, anyone?

  57. Naismith says:

    “I guess I am having a hard time following your definition of what is uniquely Mormon culture.”

    And I wha t you think culture is.

    You seem to believe that just because the cultural elements don’t fit your experience or practice, or what you think is good, that it can’t be part of “Mormon culture.”

    Every culture has things that don’t fit everyone. Thanksgiving dinner is clearly a part of American culture, but that doesn’t mean that every American has it, or that it is part of their experience. I dare say many thousands of Americans don’t even like it.

    I’m sorry if you feel that you don’t fit in with a lot of what is claimed to be Mormon culture. To be honest, I don’t feel like I fit into much of Mormon culture either. Most of the dishes above aren’t a significant part of my experience either — for whatever reason my mother didn’t make funeral potatoes or Hawaiian Haystacks. Nor have I read the Work and the Glory or seen the Book of Mormon movie, and I don’t desire to!

    But none of that means that these aren’t part of Mormon Culture. The question is how pervasive they are among Mormons and whether or not another culture (regional, national, ethnic, etc.) might explain the practices. It is very possible that you and I are simply outliers and don’t fit into the “Mormon Culture.”

  58. Naismith continues “I simply find the differences between individual Mormons to be far greater than the similarities that unite us.”

    And why exactly does this mean that these similarities aren’t a culture?

    I do see something of what you are trying to say. And to a degree I actually agree with you. What we call Mormon Culture in the U.S. is really a sub-culture of the broader American culture. It doesn’t replace it — we are still Americans or some flavor of Americans.

    But, it is also true that Mormons have unique cultural elements, and whatever you call them — they are what we mean when we say Mormon culture.

    Of course it doesn’t replace other cultures that we belong to — not in the way that 19th Century immigrants to Utah gave up much (but not all) of their home cultural practices.

    Naismith then said: “But if the culture takes on a life of its own, it can overshadow the religious practice that is really more important.”

    And if it does that, is it then a culture? or not?

    Just because culture has the ability to do this, doesn’t make it a culture or not a culture. It is something that any wise Church leader has to look out for. But I can’t see what this has o do with whether or not there is a Mormon culture, or even whether or not such a culture should be encouraged (btw, LDS General Authorities clearly do encourage Mormon culture, like it or not).

  59. Naismith also wrote:

    I cannot imagine what arrogance would bring you to publish a Mormon cookbook in Portuguese. Why anyone would inflict a cream-of casserole on these people, as if it were preferable to the pressure-cooked range-fed beef that we had at ward dinners?

    Um, that statement is really quite annoying, almost offensive. The idea that I am somehow arrogant for what I publish or that I would, even if I could, “inflict” something on people is hardly charitable.

    So, are you going to complain that your Stake President “inflicted” his last Stake Conference address on you? or that your fellow ward member’s testimony today was somehow an arrogant imposition?

    Or does this only apply to commercial products, so through Deseret Book Elder Ballard has “inflicted” Counseling with Our Councils on us? Apparently it has also been inflicted on Saints around the world, because its been translated into all the major languages of the Church.

    Merely offering a book for sale doesn’t “inflict” it on anyone.

    Now, if you mean cultural imperialism of some kind, I’m hardly in a position to force Mormon cultural imperialism on Church members in any country. Perhaps Deseret Book could pull that off (although, they don’t seem to have much interest in doing much of anything outside of English). Not me.

    You then said “Also, the translation across cultures is not as simple as we often assume.”

    Who said that it was simple? I think you are assuming a lot about me and what I know that simply isn’t true. After all, I argued here (see the third-to-last paragraph), that most works shouldn’t be translated.

    As for Elder Faust’s comment on keeping local cultures, I agree. BUT, that doesn’t meant that Mormon culture doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist. It just means that Mormon culture shouldn’t replace the local culture, but instead augment and work with the local culture.

  60. Researcher (59),
    You can find the article here (although it’s a limited-preview Google Book, so I don’t know how much will appear).

    Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma kind of put into words the food philosophy my wife and I were moving toward (although frankly, my mom had moved from traditional casserole-style cooking when I was younger into a more fresh, vegetable-oriented place by the time I was in high school).

  61. I experienced Mormon cuisine at its worst as a BYU freshman living in Heritage Halls. On my room-mates night to “cook” they counted plain orange jello as the fruit or vegetable side!

  62. Navajo Tacos are…Navajo. They are made with flour, oil, a bit of baking powder an water then fried.
    According to my BF, when they got flour on the Rez they made the best use of it that they could.
    She also fixes peyote bread, which in no way produces any of the same effect as abusing the plant by smoking it. Peyote bread is sacred food to most Navajos, who disdain abuse in any form.

  63. “Naismith continues “I simply find the differences between individual Mormons to be far greater than the similarities that unite us.”

    And why exactly does this mean that these similarities aren’t a culture?”

    Those similarities already have a name: Religion. We are bound by our religious practice. Not our food, etc. Why isn’t it enough to simply share a faith, without trying to add a layer of culture on top?

    “So, are you going to complain that your Stake President “inflicted” his last Stake Conference address on you?”

    My stake president has a stewardship to give his Stake Conference address. Sorry, I missed where you said you had a divine calling to publish a Mormon cookbook and bring it to Brasil.

    And “inflict” is an accurate word to describe what so often happens when outsiders bring foreign foods to the natives. The introduction of white flour tortillas, rather than corn, set off increased rates of obesity and diabetes.

    Go ahead and believe in Mormon culture if you want. Like I said, I think there’s a lot of variability among us.

  64. Naismith: “Why isn’t it enough to simply share a faith, without trying to add a layer of culture on top?”

    Because expression IS culture. How you share your faith IS “a layer of culture on top.”

    Like it or not, culture exists simply because we need a framework in which to communicate and share with each other.

    Naismith: “Those similarities already have a name: Religion.”

    You apparently missed what I said above: Religion IS culture.

    We share a religion, therefore we share a culture. Or rather, as soon as we start sharing and practicing religious beliefs, we have a culture.

    Naismith: “Sorry, I missed where you said you had a divine calling to publish a Mormon cookbook and bring it to Brasil.”

    I can’t help but notice you left out the Ballard book — sold through Deseret Book. Apparently its not official enough to be distributed through Church Distribution, so Elder Ballard is thus “inflicting” it on us?

    Naismith: “And “inflict” is an accurate word to describe what so often happens when outsiders bring foreign foods to the natives.”

    Only if you see the “natives” as poor, susceptible victims who have no real choice in the matter. In the case of flour tortillas you may be right to a degree, because they may lack enough knowledge about nutrition to make an informed decision.

    Deseret Book, given that it is owned by the Church, might also have some responsibility for how it uses the influence that comes from that ownership.

    Me, my theoretical cookbook might, if the recipes aren’t nutritious, bear some responsibility in theory, but not much more than selling such a cookbook would in the U.S. and only if I know that Brazilians don’t have the knowledge of nutrition that we in the U.S. have.

    Like it or not, recipes and other cultural goods already travel the world, “inflicting” themselves on natives everywhere. Heck, I had a chicken pot pie (English culture) today, and one daughter had noodles and red sauce (Italian) and another a quesadilla (mexican). Should I be offended that these foods have been “inflicted” on my family?

    Perhaps the Irish of the 1800s should be offended that the “natives” of the Americas “inflicted” potatoes on them?

    Naismith: “Go ahead and believe in Mormon culture if you want.”

    Hmmm, go ahead and disbelieve in Mormon culture if you want. It will continue to exist, and YOU will continue to (unconsciously, apparently) use it, at least when you are at church.

    We are human. We will continue to try to express and practice the things we believe, and in the process we will create culture. Many Mormons will continue to produce books, music, film and other cultural expressions related to Mormon beliefs. I don’t know if food is or will be a part of that culture or not (I don’t have enough evidence to decide).

    But I’m sure that these cultural expressions will continue and continue to expand, and even be “inflicted” on the “natives” in some places. [I’m actually trying to help the “natives” inflict some of their own cultural expressions on everyone else — see O Primeiro Concurso Parley P. Pratt de Contos Mórmons.]

  65. Oh man, mormon cookery! I grew up loathing it! I’m hoping to gain some new mormon cookery at the Holistic LDS Living conference this June. Jello needs to die a quick death!

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