Food is really important to Mormon life, and specifically to the life of Mormon women. Women, by long-seated and seemingly immovable cultural tradition in many (most? all?) world cultures, are the preparers and servers of food. This is especially true across many religious communities, not just Mormonism – church suppers grace all Protestant faiths; Catholic feast days and Jewish holidays and Muslim observances (just to name a few) are built around food and have both women and specialized food preparation at their center. Food made and presented by women marks Mormon occasions: births, funerals, baptisms, weddings, potlucks, “linger-longers,” and of course the ubiquitous and generic “refreshments” concluding nearly every Mormon event I have ever attended.
Mormon foods are the butt of gentle jokes and specialized cookbooks for being kitschy, lowbrow, and gut-busting – funeral potatoes and green jello being the most notable. In one sense, there are very few specifically “Mormon” foods at all – since the ethnic blend of the 19th century Mormon culture region borrowed generously from many different northern European cultures as well as Anglo-American and native cultures and shared a lot of similarities with other immigrant settlements across the American West – and then blended again with the generic American middle-class dietary practices of the 20th century. Still, I think it’s fair to say that even today, most cultural Mormons with any familial connections to Utah will readily recognize certain foods as commonly prepared by and among Mormons, and there is a rich and growing scholarship on Mormon foodways, notably the work of Kate Holbrook… and even on the theology of food-giving (note Kristine Haglund’s essay on “The Liturgy of Jello”).
The exchange and publication of recipes as a Relief Society social practice has a long history. Our stake Relief Society presidency just kicked off a recipe blog, bringing a time-honored practice into an updated context.
For my post today, I simply want to comment upon one modest – but durable – entry in the pageant of Mormon food publications, and that is Deseret Recipes, 1981 edition*. The rather humble rust-colored, faux-cross-stitch spiral bound cookbook, published by the Church itself, was designed as a no-frills, thrifty cookbook especially for cooking with the kind of basic commodities one might receive from the bishop’s storehouse or if one was pinching pennies. The recipes are cheap, filling, nutritious (in a high-carb, high-fiber sort of way), and unsophisticated. They use very few packaged, processed foods as ingredients (aside from a few references to canned soup and evaporated milk, and of course… jello), no difficult techniques, and no special kitchen equipment, not even a wheat grinder or electric mixer. The cookbook contains sections on purchasing and cooking inexpensive cuts of meat and also on buying fruits and vegetables in season; it thus presumes refrigeration, the services of a professional butcher, and North American-style agricultural produce.
In revisiting Deseret Recipes, several things stood out to me.
First, sweets play a big role. No surprise here. There are separate chapters for “Beverages” (only one of which, Tomato Juice Cocktail, is savory), “Desserts” and “Cakes and Cookies.” The chapter on “Mixes” includes additional sweet treats. All told, 79 pages out of 222 (fully 35%) are devoted to sweetened foods or desserts.
And that’s not even counting that every single thing identified as a “salad” had either sugar or “salad dressing” as a main ingredient, and to clarify, this does not mean a vinaigrette but rather Miracle Whip or its generic equivalent (i.e. mayonnaise with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup). Every single one.
Second, even though most dishes looked like white middle America exemplified, there were some notable nods in the direction of a few “ethnic” or “foreign” dishes: Spanish Rice Frittata, Beef Creole over Rice, Chinese Fried Rice, Liver Fricassee, Greek String Beans, Swiss Bubbly, Sukiyaki, and Polynesian Oven-baked Beans (“Polynesian” because of the addition of Spam and canned pineapple, of course). Hmm. Interesting choices. No rice and beans, nothing that suggests southern or soul food.
Third, I think it’s worth pointing out that THE officially sanctioned Mormon cookbook has NO funeral potatoes in evidence. There were potato dishes including au gratin and scalloped potatoes, of course, but all of the potato recipes start with raw potatoes, not bagged frozen processed cubed potatoes, so, there it is, for what that’s worth.
And lastly, although the book certainly implies the presence of women in the kitchen, it doesn’t actually specify this. I unearthed my dogeared copy of Deseret Recipes because I remembered it being primarily didactic about women’s homemaking roles, and only secondarily about food. Turns out I was remembering the tone of something else from the golden age of printed Church manuals, The Latter-Day Saint Woman A and B – but that’s a post for another time. Not only were the recipes a lot more practical and even timeless than I had remembered (ok, with the exception of all the molded salads), but the introduction to Deseret Recipes is, in fact, enlighteningly non-gender-specific:
…which I found rather nourishing.
*If someone is aware of an earlier edition, let me know. Also, it seems that the original 1981 is still in print, and has not been replaced with a revised edition?