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Food and Faith

By: Saskia T - February 25, 2013

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.

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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.

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I think, however, that the commentators from Slate and The Atlantic may have missed an important factor–the power of the community and the importance of communal meals within Mormonism. Jell-O is a relatively easy dish to make, keep, and serve for large gatherings. There is a parallel attraction to Jell-O within the Lutheran Church and insider jokes abound about “Church Basement Women” and Jell-O. There is even a cookbook by that title with 20 different recipes for Jell-O.

    Comment by blueagleranch — February 25, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  2. I loved this Saskia! My own family experience has been surrounded by Jell-O and funeral potatoes. Also, the next time you are in SLC we should go to the Garage and get fried funeral potatoes. So tasty! And… Unhealthy. ;-)

    Blueagleranch brings up a valid point about the role of processed foods and quick foods in the context of communal meals: the easy to make, easy to serve mentality is quite active in the Utah wards I’ve participated in.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 25, 2013 @ 11:15 am

  3. Absolutely, Blueagleranch. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Tod, fried funeral potatoes? That has got to be awesome.

    Comment by Saskia — February 25, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

  4. Great stuff, Saskia.

    Comment by Ben P — February 25, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  5. Nice, Saskia. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  6. As a non-Mormon growing up in Idaho, I will say that many of these foods tend to defend Idaho and Utah as a cultural region, but that there were a few that I saw as distinctly Mormon. One of these was that my Mormon friends and their mothers seemed to like to color their food to make it festive and to match the occasion. I will always associate sandwiches died green, purple, and blue for Easter with Mormonism.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 25, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

  7. I’ve never seen or heard of that, Amanda. Might be more accurate to call that a local (and hopefully temporary!) fad than a Mormon one, even if the locals who did it were Mormon.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 25, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

  8. Interesting that your European friends find PB&J an odd combination. I got the same reaction when I mentioned a Mormon corridor favorite–peanut butter and honey–to friends in the eastern United States.

    And, colored food? Certainly not in the 1960s. That sort of frivolity must have come later–but not to our house!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 25, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  9. Mark, My mom used to make us PB and honey sandwiches when we lived in the States–it’s apparently also a Dutch thing. The Dutch will also eat PB and chocolate, but no jelly.It’s strange where these boundaries lie!

    Ardis points out the difficulty of pinpointing what, exactly, is Mormon food and what is regional or ward-specific and who gets to decide when it’s ‘Mormon enough’. I remember from a discussion on the FMH FB page that members themselves couldn’t agree.

    Amanda, their practice sounds like the Green Eggs and Ham day we used to do at school, in which all the food was died green. I vividly remember green Rice Krispie treats. Not Mormon in the least, just a fun memory.

    Comment by Saskia — February 25, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  10. Ardis, I hope so.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 25, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

  11. Saskia, this is a very interesting piece and makes me think about my own “dual-regional” identity and relationship with food. I grew up on the East Coast but was born in Michigan and have spent all of my holidays with family in Michigan. Jello salad and different varieties of casseroles and salads (not the green kind) dominated the table at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. When I spent the rare holiday in New York or DC, I came across a much “fresher” and simpler menu. It was surprising to me years later to learn that many different places and American cultures claim similar kinds of food as their own. I wonder how different Mormons growing up in places outside of the MCR feel about these “staple” foods especially compared with Mormons who grew up in Utah and Idaho? I wonder if you or anyone can attest to this?

    Comment by NatalieR — February 25, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

  12. My grandmother still makes jell-o with fruit in it for family meals. It’s one of my favorite family traditions, whenever I have jell-o I think of my grandmother.

    I really enjoyed the post!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 25, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

  13. Natalie: I grew up in Texas and have no MCR ancestors. For me, Jello is just Jello and has no Mormon valence. (Well, not quite… as a child I associated it with economically middle-class/rich people and was covetous; most of the middle-class people I knew I knew from church, so there might have been a connection. Also: the year I lived in Utah I rather enjoyed the wide selection of off-brand jello flavors).

    Funeral potatoes and fry-sauce I know only through MCR connections. I don’t perceive that it has penetrated very far in local Mormon food culture (ie, funeral potatoes sometimes show up at potlucks, but almost always from an MCR transplant.)

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 25, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

  14. Natalie and Edje, one of the things I’m interested in is transnational Mormon food culture. One part of that is American missionaries going abroad and coming home, wanting to eat the beans and rice they ate in Brazil because it reminds them of that time and has become part of their identity in that way. The other is what “foreign” wards eat. I don’t remember anything specifically Mormon in the Dortmund ward, but then I’m not as familiar with German cuisine so I could be missing something.

    I would imagine that most Utah/Idaho foods make it to other Mormon regions through transplants, indeed. Perhaps there’s more to say about the way people cook: using food storage, keeping costs low, baking their own bread, being part of a culture that values that kind of thing.

    When people talk about Mormon food, it quickly becomes a dividing point, with people feeling included and excluded. Which makes sense of course.

    Thanks, J Stuart.

    Comment by Saskia — February 26, 2013 @ 4:56 am

  15. Oh, I’d love to see a post on transnational Mormon food culture!

    Also interesting to think of it as a divisive topic. I remember learning about funeral potatoes from a non-Mormon who lived in Colorado but had been invited to many different church gatherings.

    Comment by Natalie R — February 26, 2013 @ 3:30 pm