Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe’s ongoing series “Meandering America’s Menus”, where in our culinary guide Jon O’Guin spends a couple hours researching a given state, and then regurgitates what he finds into your open, cawing, mouths. Today’s post is about Utah, the American state that almost went third party this last election, and was therefore the closest it’s come to being interesting in the last two decades. And when I say “almost went third party”, I mean “their third party candidate had almost HALF the winner’s votes!”
This guy was the 5th most popular presidential candidate 2 years ago. I bet that 70-80% of America couldn't identify him.
In any case, let’s open things up and discuss just what we find for food in Utah.
Children of the Corn
I have to confess, dear readers, that Utah is a state that has both intrigued me, and, at one time, scared me more than a little. And part of the reason for that is something that is functionally impossible to avoid when discussing Utah: Mormonism.
In order to bring my non-American readers (which Google tells me do exist) briefly up to speed: Mormonism is a sect of Christianity that was founded in the United States. Its beliefs are quite elaborate and fascinating (a guy was shown holy texts by an angel, and had to read them through stones!), and I don’t have nearly enough time to cover them here, nor is it the proper venue. But it can’t not be discussed, because Utah is to Mormons as Rome is to Catholics: the territory surrounding the seat of their faith. The population of Utah is over 60% Mormon. The current prophet of the Mormon Church lives in and in fact, was BORN in, Salt Lake City,
Certainly, having the Prophet of an entire sub-religion be born and raised in one city is in no way limiting.
Mormonism has always been an interesting faith to me, at various times for various reasons. Broadly, I genuinely enjoy learning about other religions most of the time. More specifically, Mormons have a reputation, at least in most of America, as being very nice, helpful, and energetic people…who are also more than a little weird. They have a strong wing of proselytization, with Mormon missionaries visiting many homes in the hopes of converting others to their faith. They HAD a number of highly publicized events of early paragons of the faith being involved in polygamy, to the scandal of most of America.
And later, to the entertainment of millions of Americans.
I legitimately enjoyed this show while it was airing.
Anywho, in terms of the effects on foods: Mormons follow a code that doesn’t prohibit any foods, but DOES prohibit alcohol and “hot drinks”. Whether this is a metaphor for drinks containing caffeine or a literal descriptor of “drinks above a certain temperature” is a matter of some discussion and dissent, though coffee and tea are universally accepted as off-limits, even if served cold. Technically, the rules do have SOME input on food, (Specifically, the Word of Wisdom notes that meat should be consumed “sparingly” and “in times of famine or excess of hunger”) but that prohibition never really caught on.
Now, the one time that Utah frightened me was a very brief and personal incident: during one of my earlier years of college, I went on a week-long academic conference in Reno. (I am aware this sounds something like a lie, but I assure you, it WAS an academic conference. I don’t know that I actually gambled at all during my time there.) On the way to the conference, our chartered bus stopped in Utah for a meal break, and we got out and ate at a Wendy’s. And after about 20 seconds in the place, my brain was telling me “This is weird. This is weird.” And slowly growing a little more agitated. It took me about two to three minutes to figure out why. I was sitting at my table, talking to my friends, when it clicked: every person in this room who DIDN’T come off the bus with me had the same eye color. It wasn’t like, a bad or creepy eye color, a kind of lighter blue with green flecks.
Turns out that searching for eye colors ends up with a lot of pics that are kinda invasive or off-putting. Just imagine the inner brown ring isn't in this eye.
But it was still enough to click in my mind as “This is the kind of thing you see in a horror movie. We are in a horror movie.” And that moment has stuck with me. I know rationally that I was likely wrong: there were probably variations in the eyes, and probably people with brown eyes I just didn’t see from my single vantage point, etc. But it was still a weird moment, and remains my only personal impression of Utah.
But enough of Jon’s ominous ocular observations, let’s talk about what Utah EATS!
Second Verse, same as the First
There’s one nagging issue that’s constantly impeded our progress on this series: due to focusing on my home state as the first one, and wanting to expand in a manner that seemed logical, meant that we were going to have to do a lot of the Mid-west states at around the same time. And the Midwest states are both very similar in cuisine, AND arguably somewhat BLAND in cuisine. I brought this up when I talked about both Montana AND Wyoming before: at a certain point, you have to dig kind of deep to find differences.
What makes this a Montana burger instead of a Wyoming one? Blackberry Jam. Probably. God I hope that's not also a Wyoming thing.
However, Utah actually gives me a great reason to address WHY this is true, and the answer is rather easy: the Midwest is a long way from anywhere. The reason most Midwestern cuisine seems to consist of ‘potatoes, cheese, meat, and grain’, is because that’s a list of the longest lasting foodstuffs. (As long as you keep feeding the meat, of course.) It took WEEKS of travel to get to places like Utah moving from the East. It wasn’t until the West coast was fully settled passes were opened, and stuff like train-networks and later on, trucks for shipping food, that the area had access to a lot of diverse foodstuffs.
Utah’s useful for this point because Mormons, as part of their faith, are supposed to create reserves: in each household, there’s supposed to be enough food to feed the occupants for a year. And thus we get the kind of foods we see all over the Midwest: pasta dishes, since dried pasta keeps for years. Casseroles and dishes made with canned condensed soups (you know, the kind that last longer?) or frozen potatoes, etc etc.
One of the signature dishes of Utah is “funeral potatoes”. The exact recipe differs, of course, but it’s essentially: grated potatoes/frozen hash browns, mixed with sour cream, cheddar cheese, and cream of mushroom/chicken soup. Mixed up, and topped with either potato chips or corn flakes, and baked for a while.
Today was a weird day for picture searching. Turns out that all pics of "funeral potatoes" are copyright, but "potato Casserole" is perfectly fine.
It’s simple, filling, warming, and everything in it except the sour cream can be stored for MONTHS. That’s the heart of Utah cuisine: foods that last, that can be frozen and reheated, and served again. However, it’s not the end-all be-all of the region either. Utah has a couple little dashes of flair worth discussing.
For instance, Utah’s burger scene has two points worth discussing: firstly, as far as anyone can tell, Utah invented “fry sauce”. That mixture of Ketchup and Mayonnaise (and, spoilers, if you didn’t know what Fry Sauce IS, I guess) supposedly began in a burger chain in the state named Arctic Circle. Another chain, Crown Burgers, uses a less-widely-enjoyed, but still great invention: the Crown Burger itself is a cheeseburger topped with thinly sliced pastrami.
It's weird, at a certain level, how much I love pastrami.
That fact right there has done more to warm my hearts to the people of Utah than any speech could have: Pastrami on Burgers is FANTASTIC, and I’ve only found like, ONE place on the west coast that did it. Good on you, mates.
And if we step away from the meat to the sweet, we find some other cool things going down…
Sugar Pie, Honey Bun. You Know That I Love You
There is a joke among Mormons that since “sugar is the only vice we’re allowed, we really go all-in on it.” And honestly, looking at the stuff they’re known for, that joke may not be as inaccurate as they think.
Firstly, and most obviously, Utah is nicknamed “The Beehive State”, so of COURSE honey is a big deal with their cuisine. I could make a joke here about Mormonism and drones, but honestly, my heart’s not in it. One of my close friends observed, years ago, of Mormonism, “Say what you will, but they’ve created a generation of kids who are active, happy, and always up for outdoor activity.” He was saying it to shame me for not enjoying ultimate Frisbee as much as he did, which was somewhat unfair, but his point didn’t go unappreciated.
Nor does their honey
Moving past the honey, if you look up “Utah cuisine”, you’re going to find a bunch of listings of Fruit Pies, Fried breads topped with honey butter (a “Utah Scone”), milkshakes, and two rather interesting little dishes.
The first is Jell-O. There is a long-standing association of Mormons, and thus Utah, with Jell-O. Interestingly, it’s not THAT long: it was born sometime in the mid-60’s. The reasoning behind the association is complex: some note that the enduring nature of the powdered mix fit with the ‘food reserves’ ideas mentioned earlier. Others noted that Jell-O’s association with children and families created a niche with wholesome Mormon communities. Or that the inexpensive Jell-O was useful for producing large quantities of desserts for church gatherings.
Another theory proposes a slightly meaner angle: Mormon leaders in the latter part of the 20th century leaned into a more open discussion of their faith with America. (This may surprise you to hear, but the early relationship between the USA and Mormonism had quite a few hiccups. There was a (very minor) WAR between the two sides in the 1880’s.) And that the national conscious latched on Mormon’s not-actually-all-that-powerful attachment to the dish, as a way to infantilize them. Mormons don’t drink, don’t smoke, and they don’t drink coffee, but they love Jell-O. That sounds kind of like a child to most of America. And the thing is, sure, Salt Lake City won “most Jell-O eaten per capita” a couple times, but they also keep trading it with Des Moines, Iowa, and no one’s saying that Iowans are Jell-O fiends.
Except for me, now. Iowa is a bunch of Jell-O Fiends. And adorable pigs.
The second is a more recent development, as I understand it. It’s not even on most of the food sites I was checking, but I encountered a reference to it, and dug a little more. This is the “dirty soda”, a drink that’s only been around for the last decade or so. The premise is rather simple: you take normal soda, and hit it with shots of Italian Soda flavoring, (typically including at least ONE shot of Coconut flavoring), to make a layered, very sugary beverage. This trend has created competing chains fighting to fill the niche of “the Starbucks of Utah” (yeah, remember earlier? Mormons don’t drink coffee OR tea. So Starbucks really doesn’t build there. There are fewer Starbucks in the State of Utah than in the CITY of Seattle. )
To be fair, comparing Seattle's coffee shops to most places is unfair.
And that’s mostly it, except for one small, personal note I want to make. With the recent tragic passing of Anthony Bourdain, there’s been a lot of attention to a quote he made some years ago: “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” I mentioned earlier that I had been somewhat ambivalent about Utah for many years. And I alluded that the Crown Burger helped change some of that ambivalence. Well, in my research, I found another reason: frog-eye salad.
If that off-putting name worried you, then let this ominous image still your fears! Or stoke them!
I don’t want to say too much, in case I end up making it for a later post, but Frog-eye salad has been a perennial inclusion at picnics and meals at my grandparent’s house. There’s no actual frog-eyes in it, instead a small pasta called “acini de pepe” or “Pepper seeds”, which are just little balls of dough. It’s a jello/whipped-cream based dessert, and it’s hugely popular in Utah. It’s also one of my favorite dessert salads my family makes. And that’s the kind of thing I think Anthony was talking about, in a much narrower view: it was easy, when I didn’t know much about Utah, to laugh it off. “Jell-O loving weirdos”, “religious nuts”, and so on. But it’s when you dive in, and hear things you recognize, that you’re forced to remember that despite anything else, they’re people. People just like you or me. And maybe something in particular speaks to you, like pastrami burgers and frog-eyes spoke to me. But that’s partly why food, and making food, is so important. It’s part of who these people, and YOUR people, are. And by sharing that, understanding it, we understand each other a little better. And I think that’s a great thing to work toward.
Help Jon pay his monthly tithe to the Server Gods by supporting the site on Patreon! Or, if you simply want to spread the good word, invite your friends to like our Facebook page, and share our content! Jon thanks the Mormon church for being such good sports about some gentle ribbing, and hopes they never actually show up and talk to him, since human interaction is scary.
MONDAY: SPEAKING ABOUT MY GRANDPARENTS, WATCH AS I MAKE SOMETHING…SIMPLY INCOMPARABLE. WE MADE IT FOR EASTER, BUT I ASSURE YOU, THIS DISH WORKS ANY TIME OF YEAR. IT’S BEAN “CASSEROLE”. (WE’LL GET INTO THAT)
THURSDAY: LET’S TALK CROCK. IT’S SOMETHING I SHOULD HAVE DONE A LONG TIME AGO.