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.
There might be Hawaiian haystacks, an economical and engaging dish made from a pot of white rice and refrigerator scraps. Boiled chicken, Tuesday's ham, microwaved corn niblets, and shredded lettuce are set out in little bowls. Gravy, fried wontons, and pineapple rings are essential. Guests pile their plates with a heap of rice and add toppings as they please into a loaded stack.
These dishes are composed of ingredients easily found in any Mormon fridge or pantry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Mormon pantry is unique in its depth. The 30-page Essentials of Home Production and Storage booklet published by the LDS church states that a larder should contain up to a year of family sustenance. Both a go-to for quick family meals and a supply of beans, grains, dry milk powder, and canned peaches for surviving a The Road-style apocalypse, the pantry promotes an overall attitude of preparedness and self-sustainability that Mormons hold dear.
Mormon food can sometimes seem like an afterthought—packaged and processed foods cobbled together into bland dishes and stretched to feed piles of kids. One Mormon friend of mine, who grew up in a household of nine, mentioned the functional aspect of meals. "Food was supplied, eaten, and then moved on"; food was sustenance, not sensual pleasure.
But often the cuisine's thrifty use-what's-on-hand creativity is bolstered by bursts of decadent combination. Take fry sauce, the perfect mix of two highly processed and beloved ingredients. Ketchup and mayonnaise combine to surpass the originals: the mix is tangy, with a savory tomato backdrop and the fattiness of aioli. Dragging fries through a coral-pink pooling is a local pastime at any of Utah's great hamburger joints: Iceberg's, Crown Burger, Apollo Burger, Arctic Circle, or Hires Big H, all of which have their own variations.
The pastrami burger is also a nod in this direction. Though California can claim ownership, Utah has taken it and sprinted. Piles of griddled pastrami heaped onto juicy char-broiled hamburgers and slicked with cheese and the all the fixings, they are standard in Utah restaurants. As is the Utah scone, similar to the crumbly currant-studded pastries of New England only in name. A Utah scone is a mass of soft chewy dough deep-fried until golden and puffy as a seat cushion. Its roots lie in Native American fry bread, a dish conjured out of government issued rations of lard, flour, and salt. These fried disks are often the foundation for a mess of chili, beans, and melted cheese, but they are even better served sweet. Honey butter, another Beehive-State icon, is slathered on for full effect.
Since Mormon doctrine prohibits consumption of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and drugs, one might begin to suspect that Jell-O, cheesy casseroles, meat-topped burgers, and ice cream sundaes—Brigham Young University has five locations of its own ice cream shop to supply its students—are the allowed opiates of the community. This is not to say there is no asceticism. A 24-hour monthly fast is recommended.