Jell-O Love: A Guide to Mormon Cuisine



In some circles, it is a well-known and boast-worthy fact that Utah has historically consumed more Jell-O per capita than any other state in the nation. This jiggling, fruity dessert made from horse hooves and artificial flavoring holds a special wobbling place in the heart of every Utahan, native or adopted. The love of Jell-O resonates so deeply that in 2001, when Utah narrowly beat out Iowa in annual Jell-O consumption, state officials elected Jell-O the official state snack and named Bill Cosby an honorary Utah citizen.

When my family relocated to Utah from New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the summer of 1998, we were unaware of the local gelatin affinity. Shiny yellow and blue Jell-O salads sat in our fridge vibrating their friendly "welcome to the neighborhood." We discovered the strange, almost otherworldly suspensions of savory items—shredded carrots, peas, and cubed ham—in gifts of Jell-O molds. And I, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, entered a new semester of junior high and a new culinary terrain.

Home economics was my first class. My teacher, who had an incredible ability to hide and forget multiple pencils in her stiff purple bouffant, stood in front of the class, introduced herself, and with a wide smile began the semester with this question: "Now, how many of your mothers have more than five recipes for Jell-O?" Almost everyone in the class raised their hands. "Now," she said, "tell me, how many of your mothers have more than 10 recipes for Jell-O?" I could hear the soft scrape of rising fabric behind me. Many of my classmates kept their hands high. Her excitement increased. "How many of your mothers have more than 15 recipes for Jell-O?" Her eyes gleamed and her smile widened at the response. "Twenty?" I turned around, and at least six or seven classmates with Jell-O-obsessed mothers beamed back.

Utah food culture, for the most part, can be dubbed Mormon cuisine. The state was settled in 1847 by Brigham Young, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following the assassination of founder Joseph Smith, and as the community fled religious persecution it spread into southern Idaho, California, Wyoming, and Nevada, popularly called the "Mormon Corridor" or the "Jell-O Belt." A mix of convenience foods and Southwestern ingenuity, Mormon cuisine is built around feeding dozens of mouths from pantry stores and prudent seasoning. Notably, many iconic Mormon foods are enjoyed throughout the Southwest by Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

Because Utah is the most homogenously religious state in the nation, social life tends to revolve around LDS church functions, church potlucks being the nucleus of Mormon cuisine. Any budding culinary anthropologist can touch down at the Salt Lake City International Airport, shout "Take me to a ward potluck!", and discover the bedrock of Mormon food.

At most social functions, there will be funeral potatoes. Not just for post-burial buffets, the dish is comforting at any social gathering. Calorically astronomical and dense with melted cheese, funeral potatoes are a casserole of shredded cooked frozen potatoes, canned cream of chicken soup, and sour cream, topped with crumbled cornflakes and baked until molten. This food, along with green Jell-O, was immortalized in a set of collectible pins from the 2002 Winter Olympics.

There will also be frog's eye salad, an ambrosial addition to any potluck. This is made from small pasta balls called acini de pepe—Italian for peppercorns (fregola or orzo can be substituted)—that have been cooked, drained, and cooled, then mixed with a tub of whipped topping, canned crushed pineapple, and canned mandarin orange segments.

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Scarlett Lindeman is a New York City-based food writer and perpetual line-cook. She just received her master's degree in Food Studies from New York University.

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