Saturday, 28 April 2012

Snacks Between Meals: Death Au Gratin

I have come to the realization that I might be giving everyone the impression that I spend most of my days, and even some nights, doing nothing but dwelling on the horrors of mortality.  That’s not true.  In fact, I can sometimes be quite positive about death.  Being raised a Mormon, I actually learned to recognize funerals, an event where everyone in attendance is forcefully reminded of their own "best before" dates, as a time to celebrate.  My siblings and I would often even look forward to funerals.  Was this because of the comforting words that came from the pulpit, the strong religious belief in a life after death, an eternity spent basking in the presence of God?  Was it the assurance of a paradisiacal world that awaits the righteous, a world without pain, sickness, or suffering?  Was it the promise of a heavenly reunion with all of your departed loved ones?

Nah, it was the funeral potatoes.

What are funeral potatoes, you ask?  Well, let me first give you a culinary glimpse into the kind of subculture that evolves when a society doesn't have extramarital sex, alcohol, or HBO to keep it occupied.

I think the psychological term is called sublimation.  Everyone needs a vice.  For some it's smoking, for others it's $10 hookers.  And for many it's an addiction to watching professional dancers dumb-down their art so that their recently-released-from-rehab C-list celebrity partners can stumble through 3 minutes of whoring for an additional 15 minutes of fame on a reality TV show.  Okay, not so different from the $10 hookers after all.

For many Mormons (at least the ones who haven't admitted to discovering free porn on the Internet), they have transferred their more carnal desires into food.  That's why I don't attend church anymore; much as I try, I can't maintain the minimum weight requirement.

And it's not just any food - sure, who doesn't love barbecue, fresh lobster, or a plate of perfectly sauced home-made pasta; these are givens - no, Mormons, much like their mortal enemies, Southern Baptists, have refined two of the three core food groups of church potlucks into something that exists between alchemy and art.  Of course, we're talking about casseroles and Jell-O salads.

By the way, if you are wondering what the third food group is, it's dip.  Dip has been a popular staple of potlucks for decades, but it didn't really come to prominence at church events until Mrs. Edna Lovely Pennybacker realized she had used all of her serving bowls to separate and store her scrap-booking supplies and, out of desperation, carved a bowl from of a stale round of bread to hold her trademark spinach dip.  She even tried to hide what she had done by stacking the tiny fistfuls (she had very small hands) of bread innards around the bowl, and she served it with a beautifully arranged selection of fancy crackers (savory biscuits, not uppity rednecks) to scoop up her dip.  So imagine her surprise when members of the church choir (always the first to the buffet table) ignored her Ritz and Bretons wreath and started dunking the chunks of bread into the dip.  Some even started tearing pieces of bread out of the bowl itself! 

The rest is potluck history. 

Sitting at the top of the potluck food chain, well above pineapple encrusted Jell-O molds and lemon squares dusted with powdered sugar, is the dish known as funeral potatoes.  As I understand it, the ingredients are simply a bag of frozen hashbrowns, cheddar cheese, sour cream, corn flakes, and cream of mushroom soup. (I've heard that only 2% of canned soups sold in Utah ever actually become a bowl of soup; it seems that every casserole recipe in the state begins with the phrase "One can of Campbell's...".  Fancy recipes start with "Two cans of Campbell's...".)  Brigham only knows what the pioneers must have eaten on their long journey west to settle by the Great Salt Lake before the invention of can openers.

Yet, in spite of its humble ingredients, funeral potatoes are truly greater than the sum of its parts and have somehow become as integral to Mormon funerals as organ music and pregnant mourners.  So long as the deceased wasn't someone I knew too well (a second cousin usually fit the bill; I had hundreds of those), I would eagerly put on my Sunday best on a Saturday afternoon, knowing what I would soon find in its customary place between plates of rolled cold cuts and bowls of cottage cheese a la Mandarin orange slices, keeping itself warm under a thin veil of aluminum foil.  Sure, funeral potatoes would sometimes appear at wedding receptions and church picnics, but they always tasted best under the pall of death.

For my entire childhood, I assumed we had coined the casserole's morbid moniker ourselves in our small town of Cardston.  Turns out the name was so well known throughout  the wider Mormon subculture that a collectible pin was fashioned in shape of a baking pan filled with funeral potatoes for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.  Even outside the cloistered LDS community, others (gentiles, heathens, philistines...pick your favorite) have begun to discover and share this culinary treasure.  I once saw Nigella Lawson, celebrity British cook and naughty kitchen goddess (there's something about the way she uses her hands to blend ingredients and kneed dough that is borderline obscene; she's like a cross between your childhood friend's hot mom and Chef Boyardee...but in a good way.)  Anyway, I watched her describe and prepare funeral potatoes on international television.  She even used the proper name!

Yep, after a long hiatus since the cancellation of the Donny & Marie show, latter day saints are returning to the cultural zeitgeist.  I can only imagine what we might witness next.  Maybe a broadway musical about the Book of Mormon?


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