Each culture has its own specific food traditions, and here in Utah we have funeral potatoes!
The ways people prepare and consume food are some of the most culture-specific practices to be found within communities. Here in Utah, we have a heritage of cooking tied to a religious group, the Mormons. Perhaps the best known tradition is the funeral luncheon. Every time there is a funeral, the women of the church organize a post-burial luncheon for the family of the deceased. Over time, a traditional menu has evolved—ham, potatoes au gratin, green beans, rolls, salad, and dessert. There is nothing in Mormon theology that requires this menu, but it has become the standard funeral luncheon, to the point that au gratin potatoes have been dubbed “funeral potatoes” by people of the region. It is an easy menu to prepare—you can buy pre-cooked ham and heat it up in the oven, heat up canned green beans, buy rolls and butter. The only dishes that require scratch preparation are the potatoes, salads, and desserts, and even those can be purchased if necessary. When someone dies, there is very little time to plan a meal for a large group. The standard simple menu makes it easy on the women who volunteer their time to prepare and serve the meal on short notice. Also, the traditional foods can sit in the oven or refrigerator for a long time without showing any deterioration, so, even if it is a long funeral, the food will still be edible. This menu seems to have come into common use around twenty to thirty years ago.
Another area of Utah foodways is rooted in the region’s western pioneer past. Two types of cooking that are still enormously popular for special events are pit-roasting meat and cooking in Dutch ovens, both of which have transferred easily from frontier settings to contemporary livestock-raising culture. At several festivals, such as Brigham City’s Peach Days and Garden City’s Raspberry Days, Dutch oven cobblers featuring the relevant fruit are sold by the serving with vanilla ice cream dolloped on top. Pit roasting and Dutch oven cooking are two areas where men take the lead in cooking the food, perhaps because of their connections to the outdoors, camping, and hunting.
Image: Olympic Pin, Funeral Potatoes. Image of a souvenir pin from the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The pin is a replica of funeral potatoes, a popular Utah potato dish. 2002. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See Bear River Heritage Area fieldwork, Fife Folklore Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library Special Collections, USU; Carol Edison, Utah Folk Arts Program, Utah Arts Council