Exponent II Classics: Mormon Soul Food
*We received this wonderful look at Mormon cooking with no identifying contact information. After some time, we decided to publish it anyway in the hopes that its author will identify herself so she may be properly credited.—Exponent II editors
For many, the mention of women and the Mormon Church in the same breath brings up issues having to do with motherhood, authority, and gender roles. But I think of casseroles and ward cookbooks. In our modern era of Enrichment rather than Homemaking, I know I ought not. But this is the world I grew up in.
Actually, casserole was not allowed in our home when I was a child. Both of my parents are converts to the Church. My father was a Mexican Catholic and my mother a Mexican-Puerto-Rican American from Houston. Their palates have never adapted to the…subtleties of the casserole. And so, as I grew up eating salsa verde and menudo, I always found canned green beans cooked with soup, cheese, and tater tots somewhat exotic. For me, Mormon cooking also reflects Mormon culture itself: at its worst, bland, cloying, and stodgy. At its best, cozy, nurturing, terribly sweet, and even a little peculiar.
I have a good-sized collection of ward cookbooks. There is my mother’s Edenbrooke Ward Cookbook, 1995. I also have Recipes from Around the World, 1987, all the way from the Lakewood, Colorado Stake Relief Society (with a curious overrepresentation of Northern European recipes); the San Antonio 9th Ward Christmas Cookies Exchange, 1987; a recent cookbook from the Brooklyn Park Slope Ward; and a 1977 cookbook from the ward of my childhood, the Denver 20th Ward. Open a ward cookbook and you will find the worries, desires, aspirations, and mundanities of Mormon women’s lives. Within its pages you’ll see many attempts to fee five children and a husband after soccer practice and piano lessons for under $5. You will see oblivion in a diabetic’s nightmare of pudding, cool whip, jello, cake, and marshmallows. You will see treats for firesides and grand dishes for ward dinners. You will see a lot of ground beef and cheese.
Something quite poignant that I find in Mormon cookbooks is their middle-class aspirations towards sophistication—without the risk or expense of haute cuisine. This striving is informed to some degree by missions abroad. Young sons and daughters return and attempt to recreate the dishes of the Philippines or Austria. My favorite example is the Oriental Salad—shredded chicken, cabbage, and some other sort of vegetable like broccoli or bell pepper, a dressing of salad oil, sugar, vinegar, and if you’re very fancy, canned mandarin oranges, all topped with toasted slivered almonds and crushed uncooked ramen noodles. I’ve encountered this salad at just about every Mormon baby or wedding shower I’ve ever been to. It’s strictly women’s food—too light for the menfolk, too funky for kids. I used to be scornful of the Mormon oriental salad, but there is a charm in its yearning for faraway places, for something more elegant than a minivan and a playpen.
More troubling is the chicken enchilada casserole. Now, I know how to make chicken enchiladas from my mother. You cook several corn (not flour) tortillas lightly until soft. You roll them with shredded cooked chicken, onions, and maybe some queso blanco. Then you infuse some olive oil with a bruised garlic clove, remove it and add chili powder and flour, cook for a few minutes, and add chicken broth or tomato juice and salt to taste. Spoon this over rolled tortillas in a shallow baking dish and warm in the oven.
The Mormon chicken enchilada is an entirely different dish. It is a gummy travesty of flour tortillas, cream of chicken soup (and really, what casserole is complete without cream of chicken or mushroom soup?), and pounds of shredded cheddar cheese. Some recipes throw evaporated milk into the mess as well. And, if you’re a really adventurous Mormon or if you or your eternal companion went on a mission to Mexico or Southern California, some canned jalapenos. This is one of Mormonism’s most disturbing practices, and it must be stopped! Or, at the least, stop calling it chicken enchilada casserole and call it something else—say, melted cheese and chicken disarray.
My favorite Mormon food memory is scalloped potatoes (aka funeral potatoes). We had these at every ward dinner growing up, alongside sliced ham and canned green beans. I loved the savory tang of sour cream and cheddar cheese held together by the potatoes, which-let’s be honest-are just an excuse to melt together large dollops of fat. And so the perfect scalloped potato recipe became my quest as I looked through the ward cookbooks.
I came across three that came close: Teena Barnes’s sour cream scalloped potatoes, Norma Russell’s scalloped potatoes and ham, and Ann’s potato casserole, submitted by Eloise Bell in the food essays anthology Saints Well Seasoned (d Linda Hoffman Kimball, Deseret Books, 1998). I ended up combining all three for my ideal recipe. And so I ask the pardon of all three women, most particularly Ms. Bell, who did not approve of my mangled recitation of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales sophomore year at BYU. I hope that my potatoes prove more palatable.
Russell’s potatoes include ham. I like this because I have to have my scalloped potatoes with ham, but it would take my husband and our unborn children forever to get through a whole ham roast. But Russell’s recipe is missing butter and the indispensable sour cream. For that I turn to Barnes, who includes plenty in a recipe that feeds sixteen, perfect for a ward dinner. I used her recipe as the base with different proportions. Both she and Bell boil their potatoes in their skins first. Bell’s recipe is a bit gooier, as it includes milk and has a higher cheese to potato ratio, so I leaned in that direction. I also love Bell’s addition of green onions.
I’ve tried scalloped potatoes with baking potatoes (Russets) and with boiling potatoes (Yukon gold). The baking potatoes go mushier, of course, and I prefer them. As long as you’re having sloppy amounts of cheese, you may as well go with the mushy potato. However, the boiled potato is a little more dignified in the way it continues to support itself with firmness in the casserole.
A word about the corn flakes: I could not. Maybe I’m no fun. Maybe I have no soul. But I simply could not top my dinner entrée with breakfast cereal. I know this is blasphemy, but there you go. Russell is with me on this. She tops hers with paprika, which is very nice.
Even nicer is the Ulchester Applewood cheddar I used, a smoked cheese with paprika that pretty much made the dish as far as I’m concerned. The smokiness enhances the ham well and lends a little depth to the potatoes. True, it did end up deviating from the nostalgia I was after, but nostalgia can be a disease.
If you are a good, thrifty Mormon, you will want to bake something else along with your potato casserole. I was happy to find Carolyn Langston’s pumpkin custard cake in the 20th Ward cookbook. Carolyn was my mother’s best friend. She remains in my memory as the prime example of all the wonderful things a Mormon woman can be: warm, loving, practical, well-humored, earthy, frugal, and magical. Carolyn died of cancer in 1991. I include her recipe as a tribute to her.
Scalloped Potatoes with Ham
4-6 potatoes, boiled in their skins until tender
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (Ulchester Applewood preferred)
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup melted butter
pinch of salt
pinch of pepper
1 1/2 cup cooked, diced ham
6 tablespoons chopped green onions
Combine the soup, sour cream, 1 cup of the cheese, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. Slice the potatoes about 1/8 inch thick. Layer potatoes in a dish with the ham, onion, and mixture. Cover and bake 15 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with remaining cheese and paprika. Bake uncovered 15 more minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Custard Pumpkin Cake
1/3 cup butter
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cup flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
Cream sugar and butter. Add eggs and vanilla. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk. Stir in nuts. Pour into square cake pan.
For custard combine:
2 egg yolks (reserve whites)
1 cup canned, pureed pumpkin
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon each ground nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, cloves.
Beat two egg whites stiff and fold into custard. Pour over cake. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes.