I spend a lot of my time thinking about food. My kitchen reflects my dual citizenship: I enjoy both Kraft macaroni and cheese and a good Dutch “mashpot“,1 and now that I live in Germany, I eat the occasional bratwurst. I know firsthand how picking and choosing your ingredients in the grocery store can both reflect and shape your identity. (Not to mention the ribbing you receive for bringing PB&J sandwiches to school here–that combination grosses Dutch kids out and will get you exiled from the lunch table fast.)
I’m teaching a course on food and faith in American culture next semester, and preparing for that got me thinking about (American) Mormon food culture. And when one thinks about Mormonism and food, one thinks about Jell-O. I’ve had so many Mormons tell me they don’t like Jell-O, or that it didn’t really feature in their lives growing up, or that they don’t consider it particularly Mormon. On the other hand, when I first arrived in Provo last summer, my roommates were doing Jell-O shots at a house party (obviously the non-alcoholic kind). And at the dinner that kicked off the summer seminar, Jell-O salad was served. So what’s a non-Mormon like me to think on that score?
Several things, apparently. According to Christy Spackman, the origin of the jello obsession doesn’t actually have that much to do with Mormon culture. In her Slate article, “Mormonism and the Jell-O Mold: Why do we associate the religion with the gelatin dessert?”, she writes that the stereotype is a fairly recent one and came to be through an extensive marketing campaign. In explaining this process, Spackman is not denying Utahns’ love for Jell-O.2 However, Spackman asserts that this love has less to do with LDS culture and more to do with “the ascendance of processed foods”, a nation-wide, not state-based, process. Moreover, the stereotype of Mormons as Jell-O eaters has far-reaching consequences. Spackman points to the Mormon practice of avoiding alcohol and tobacco, saying
any group that willfully chooses to abstain is seen at best as odd and as worst as juvenile … Jell-O … [is] a food intimately linked with the relatively powerless realms of womanhood and childhood [and it] reinforces the perception of Mormons as childlike… and … prevents Mormons from being taken seriously as full-fledged citizens.
Thus, while Mormons “[accept] all the food’s postive connotations of family-friendliness, child-centeredness, and domesticity”, outsiders see this taste as proof that Mormons are “strange, immature, and ultimately mockable”.
These are quite heavy accusations. Scarlett Lindeman, writing for The Atlantic, has a different take on Mormonism’s food culture. According to her, Jell-O is part of a larger trend in which self-sustainability (food storage!) and high amounts of calories are king. “Packaged and processed foods cobbled together into bland dishes and stretched to feed piles of kids” are then “bolstered by bursts of decadent combination”, leading to fry sauce, cheesy casseroles, and ice cream sold on every corner. Lindeman concludes that these products come to stand in the place of coffee, tea, alcohol and drugs as “allowed opiates of the community”.3
A NY Times article points to the influence that missionary experiences may have on Mormon eating habits, “a custom that has given many a lingering taste for kimchi or Camembert”. Furthermore, the author, Julia Moskin, links the many, many food blogs written by LDS writers to a religious and/or spiritual preoccupation with food, what she calls “being able to feed the faithful”, often with the help of food storage. (The article offers a recipe for updated funeral potatoes, if you’re interested.)
All of these are interesting viewpoints and have a lot going for them. Though food culture isn’t, strictly speaking, part of my dissertation, I still hope to examine more closely the way food practices shape contemporary Mormon culture and are shaped by Mormon culture. Because while a cigar may just be a cigar, food is never just food, be it Jell-O, funeral potatoes, or something else entirely.
1 If do you click on the Wiki link, please take my word for it though never really a work of art, a typical stamppot usually looks a whole lot better.
2It’s kind of hard to deny, as, in 2001, Jello-O became the official state snack. BYU students were heavily involved in this process, and other such movements around the state clearly demonstrated a bond between Utah and Jell-O.
3To be fair, Lindeman does also acknowledge the “asceticism” within Mormonism, pointing to the recommended monthly fast as an example. Apparently Mormonism isn’t all about the calories.