In Praise of Funeral Potatoes
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
My mom converted to the church as a teenager and doesn’t cook “Utah Mormon” food. Cream cheese was for bagels and cheesecake, not hot-pot creamy enchiladas. She used real butter in her cookies and made chicken soup from scratch. When I moved in with my grandparents during my first year at BYU, I experienced Utah Mormon cooking in full force. One of my grandma’s favorite dishes was eggs, cheese, and a can of peppers mixed together and cooked in an oven. I reviled the butter-flavored PAM she sprayed on vegetables for Sunday roast. I took polite servings of her casseroles, and I got sick of eating Stouffer’s lasagna for dinner. She complimented grandchildren by calling them “good eaters.” Her funeral potatoes, a combination of frozen potatoes, cheese, cream of chicken soup, sour cream, and cornflakes, seemed like an abomination to me. If you were going to make something, why would you use already-processed ingredients like canned soup? Another degree of processing would remove it another degree from freshly made. Her cooking seemed dull and uncreative to me.
One year for our family reunion, in lieu of creating yet another reunion t-shirt, we decided to compile a family cookbook. I volunteered to transcribe my grandma’s recipes, but I couldn’t resist editorializing at least one recipe, warning readers against using margarine. After I married and lived in a ward where funerals were more common, I signed up to bring a tray of potatoes. “All those people will be sick of funeral potatoes,” I thought, “I’ll make scalloped potatoes and they’ll be so grateful to me.” It wasn’t until last year, when I read about research on Utah Mormon cooking and my grandma died, that I came to appreciate Utah Mormon cooking.
Kate Holbrook, currently working in the Church History department, wrote her dissertation partially on “Latter-day Saint culinary ideals.” She discusses how while dishes like tuna casserole and Jell-O salad aren’t unique to Mormonism, they show how Mormons value self-sufficiency. Holbrook discusses in her dissertation how a recipe for “Rhubarb Ice Cocktail” combines a few different Utah Mormon ideals: it is a use for rhubarb, which grows abundantly in the intermountain west, and since it’s called a cocktail, it’s a fancy party drink, appropriate to serve at a ward function or family dinner. The recipe calls for boiling sliced rhubarb, but advises readers to save the (tasteless) rhubarb pieces for pie or cobbler. This instruction avoids waste. It combines the Mormon values of frugality, self-sufficiency, and community, with the human value of wanting to impress your friends with a mocktail.
Other traditional Utah Mormon recipes use lots of food storage staples. It’s wasteful to throw away cans when they expire, so in order to avoid waste and store food, a Mormon household has to cook with those items somehow. Also, it’s a lot of work to make a dish that can feed ten people, even if it’s lasagna, so recipes that combine pantry items are convenient. My friend has a family recipe called “10 can chili” that is meat and onions combined with ten different canned goods. My grandma’s funeral potatoes were also made with pantry staples, as long as you included the freezer in your pantry.
The day after my grandma died, we had a family dinner at my grandparent’s house. My aunts served a broccoli-cheese casserole Grandma had made the week before, and I didn’t even think it was gross. It was like an offering from my grandmother’s ghost, comforting us from beyond the veil. When I hosted my extended family for dinner before her funeral, I served the pea soup she always made in the fall, and I discovered it was easy to make in large quantities. At her funeral in her ward chapel, I took comfort in eating the funeral potatoes her ward members prepared. I felt like I was eating the same dish when I went back for seconds, even though new trays had been set out by other ward members. No one made scalloped potatoes or tried to show off with unusual spices.
Familiarity and normality are virtues in the right context. The funeral potatoes were comforting because they were so predictable and homogeneous. I’ve long been a fan of individuality, so it’s difficult for me to admit this. In the early 2000s when I was a young woman, our teacher played the song “Window to His Love” for us. It has lyrics like “I want to stand so straight and tall that you won’t notice me at all” and “with each passing day I want to fade away / so that only He can be seen and I become a window to His love.” I felt a knee-jerk reaction to assert that I shouldn’t have to give up my individuality to serve God. Certainly there are times when my individuality can benefit my ward. If I’m giving a talk or teaching a lesson, I can recount a personal experience or compile a dazzling research summary. I might befriend another member who shares business or hobby interests with me, and we could help each other grow our skills and networks.
Conformity though, gives a comfort that my oddball Sunday school comments rarely do. Sunbeams look forward to a regular routine of lesson followed by snacks and coloring. Youth are assured by a near-liturgical calendar of New Year’s dances and summer camps. The sacrament and certain hymns become so familiar that I struggle to participate in them mindfully--but even if I don’t think about the lyrics every time, the repetition notifies me that church is familiar and safe. At my grandma’s funeral, I understood that conforming is appropriate in some situations. You don’t need to have any special skill to put away chairs, testify of Christ, or make tuna casserole. You simply need a willing heart and the right recipe and ingredients.
The next time there was a funeral in my ward, I pulled out our family cookbook. Following my grandma’s funeral potato recipe, I had funeral potatoes in the oven in fifteen minutes. Though I left out the cream of chicken soup, I felt proud to pass this tradition on to anonymous mourners.
Grandma’s Hashed Brown-Cheese Casserole (“Funeral Potatoes”)
2 12-oz pkg. Frozen hash browns
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 tsp. Salt
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
2 c. sour cream
1 stick butter, melted
1 tbsp. Minced onion
2 c. coarsely crushed corn flakes, mixed with ¼ c. melted butter
Place potatoes in colander. Let stand until completely thawed and excess moisture has drained off. Combine sour cream, soup and butter. Mix well. Add salt, onion, and cheese. Mix well. Blend in potatoes. Place mixture in shallow, 2 quart casserole dish. Sprinkle buttered corn flake crumbs on top. Bake, uncovered, in oven preheated to 350 degrees about 50 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.
From Do Right Bravely - In the Kitchen! Meibos 2019 Reunion p. 155
Rhubarb Ice Cocktail
4 cups (1 ⅓ lb) sliced fresh rhubarb
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
Ginger ale, chilled
Fresh mint, if desired
Wash and clean rhubarb; cut into 1-inch lengths. Combine with water and sugar in medium saucepan; cook until tender. Thoroughly strain juice from rhubarb, but do not press pulp through. Freeze juice. (Use drained rhubarb for pie or cobbler.) When ready to serve, break up rhubarb ice and mash into a slush. Spoon into punch cups or glasses; pour in chilled ginger ale. Garnish with mint leaves, if desired.
From Jardine, Mormon Country Cooking, p. 20, as cited in Holbrook’s dissertation “Radical Food: Nation of Islam and Latter-day Saint Culinary Ideals” (1930-1980)