Register Thursday | February 9 | 2023
Dining Among the Saints

Dining Among the Saints

Recently married into a Mormon family, Mona Awad seeks redemption in the Jell-O Belt.

Last fall, my husband’s Mormon family invited us over for a potluck. Potlucks are a big deal for Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, and my in-laws are no exception. Naturally, I wanted to impress them. Naturally, I cracked open The Essential Mormon Cookbook, by Julie Badger Jensen.

Unfortunately, no matter where I turned in Jensen’s cookbook, I was called to commit atrocities. After flipping past Jell-O recipes that involved suspending melon chunks in a trembling, plutonium-green blob (“Loveable Lime Jell-O”). After skipping everything that called for a can of Campbell’s soup into which meat, noodle or bean was thrown to either sink or swim. After pondering the dredging of chicken breasts in Russian dressing, apricot jam and dry onion soup mix (“Amazing Apricot Chicken”). After mulling the hithering and thithering of salads with mini marshmallows, pineapple tidbits and Craisins. And after toying with, then quickly dismissing, the possibility of making a cheese ball (dry ranch dressing, chopped chives and cheddar strings), I gave up.

In the end, I made black and white cupcakes. Best served with coffee (a beverage Saints are not allowed to drink) and full of a sour cherry jam only found in gourmet food shops (Mormons are suspicious of anything “fancy”), the cupcakes were, I knew, entirely inappropriate. Still, I hoped for the best.

“Oh my heck,” said my sister-in-law Crystal and her husband Legrand, as they took the cupcakes, “how fancy.” Five minutes after arriving, we joined my hundred relatives—women in floral dresses with violently winged hair, men with crew cuts, in white shirts and loud ties—at the picnic table and watched them heap their paper plates full of the very fare I had not been able to bring myself to make. The cheese ball nuzzled in its wreath of Ritz crackers. A flamingo pink slop I took to be a variation of Jell-O salad. A swamp of wilted lettuce floating with dried ramen and Craisins. No beer, wine or tequila. Instead, plastic cups filled with Yoo-hoo, lemonade and caffeine-free Coke.

Fifteen minutes, tops, is all it took (and this included the pre-meal, solemnity-inducing “blessing of the food”). No staggering of courses, no leaning back and lingering, no attempts at languorous conversation. Only blonde heads bent over plates piled with various gloops. Only squidgy sounds of plastic forks negotiating gelatin. For dessert, more Jell-O. No coffee, though some sipped Postum—a coffee substitute made from barley whose terrible taste Saints masked by adding copious amounts of powdered Coffee-mate.

Glaring at my untouched cupcakes, I feared I would not last long in Zion. Did I need to be an anthropologist to understand what food said about this culture?

Chuck-A-Rama is something of a Salt Lake City institution. Called the “epitome of Utah’s bulk dining scene,” it certainly lives up to its billing. Barely eleven o’clock on a Monday morning, and the mile-long room is already crammed with large families waddling around a monstrous buffet table.

The restaurant’s chuck wagon logo refers to the legendary exodus of the Mormons who, fleeing religious persecution, crossed the plains and settled in Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In the interest of building a permanent promised land, the first Mormon pioneers were an agrarian society. No easy task to be a farmer in the desert, but it was the vision of Brigham Young, the Mormon Church’s second prophet. He declared that “the first duty of every Saint when he comes to this valley is to learn how to grow a vegetable.” His ever-dutiful Saints followed instructions zealously, with results that are still visible today. “Wherever you go in the Mormon country,” wrote Wallace Stegner, “ see the characteristic marks of Mormon settlement: the typical, intensively cultivated fields of alfalfa and sugar beets and Bermuda onions and celery, the orchards of cherry and apple and peach and apricot.”

You are unlikely to find any such food at Chuck-A-Rama. What you’ll find, nestled in the infinite troughs of its buffet table, is Frog Eye Salad (a local favourite consisting of pearl pasta, canned mandarins, marshmallows and pineapple tidbits), a wobbling ring of green Jell-O dotted with little farts of Cool Whip, a sweating roast baron of beef, “high quality” baked-pit ham, and kettle-cooked turkey in a carrot-potato sludge (a tribute to Utah’s pioneer heritage of Dutch-oven cooking).

Starting out as a cafeteria in 1966 in downtown SLC, Chuck-A-Rama now has ten locations between Boise, Idaho, and St. George, Utah, complete with banquet rooms. You can even get married there, and people do. Its immense success is no doubt due to the fact that its dishes appeal to Zion’s culinary quirks (like “whole wheat” rolls dense and sweet as Easter bread with sugary crusts), its large selection of non-alcoholic beverages (forty-four), and its cheap prices ($8 for lunch, $11 for dinner). As kids pay by the year at Chuck’s, with children under two eating for free, Mormon families are the main demographic.

It was among the cries and screams of those kids that I returned to our boat of a booth with the only thing that looked edible, a fried scone (a Utah specialty) that my husband insisted I smear with honey butter (in Mormon country, even the butter has sugar in it). No one else seemed particularly happy to be there either, despite how high their plates were piled. Buzzing from the scone, and unwilling to face a dessert table where I knew no fresh fruit lived, we left.

If Mormon buffet bliss is three-tiered, like Mormon heaven, then its celestial pinnacle lives at The Roof, a buffet on the top floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Temple Square. There you can drink diabetic coma-inducing lemonade beside ceiling-to-floor windows which offer a spectacular view of the Salt Lake City Temple, while a live pianist plays a rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The dishes are more conventional than those at Chuck’s, but they are also far more sugary; the dessert table extends nearly twice as far as the cold and hot sections.

“We tend to have a sweet tooth,” admits Todd Leonard, executive chef at The Roof. “We kind of indulge ourselves on the sweets because no one told us we couldn’t.”

Mormons get their dietary dos and don’ts from the Word of Wisdom. Bestowed on Mormonism’s first prophet and church founder Joseph Smith and recorded in the Doctrines and Covenants (a sacred text second only to the Bible and the Book of Mormon), the revelation prohibits strong or hot drinks and tobacco.

“The Word of Wisdom is the way the Lord wants us to live our lives and to eat and it is a 100 percent true and there is wisdom in it, that’s why it’s called the Word of Wisdom,” says Leonard. A Saint who follows the Word of Wisdom is said to reap not only “health in their navel and marrow to their bones” but also “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” as well as “a promise that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as they are children of Israel, and not slay them.”

The actual rewards, however, seem a little more unpleasant. Mormons on average weigh 4.6 pounds more than their counterparts in other religions and are 14 percent more likely to be obese. According to studies compiled by Brigham Young University (BYU), church prohibitions drive Mormons toward excessive eating as a substitute for other sources of enjoyment.

“For years, the church has focused on the don’ts—don’t smoke, don’t drink,” says Steve Aldana, a BYU professor. “We have a lot of don’ts, and now finally here’s a do—go ahead and do eat—and boy, do we eat.”

Food is also suggested as a way to curb one’s libido in apostle Mark E. Peterson’s A Guide to Self-Control: Overcoming Masturbation. "If the temptation seems overpowering while you are in bed," he writes, "get out of bed and go into the kitchen and fix yourself a snack.

Of course, not all snacks are free of the devil. Peterson also cautions against ingredients which might incite one's lust: "Reduce the amount of spice and condiments in your food."

While this attitude might account for the blandness of some of Zion's dishes as well as the saintly suspicion of "fancy" cuisine, it does little towards illuminating the Mormons' shift from self-sufficient, agrarian visionaries to No. 1 consumers of Jell-O in the nation, earning the entire Mormon inter-mountain west the nickname the "Jell-O Belt."

Jell-O salad and canned-soup casserole are, of course, found in many 1950s and '60s American cookbooks. If they seem to persist in contemporary Utah as Mormonism's signature dishes it's perhaps because, according to Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, authors of America's Saints, "Mormons stand out as a people who are prototypically American in a 1950s style."

Following the Great Accomodation of 1890 (wherein Mormons renounced polygamy in exchange for statehood) and prior to the Second World War, Mormonism was either treated with indifference, suspicion or curiosity by the rest of the country—but mostly indifference. With the '50s came Mormonism's heyday—a rapid postwar expansion, the beginning of a shift from a rural to an urban landscape, and a new prophet, David O. McKay, who, with his smiling, handsome, clean-shaven face, was the first LDS prophet to resemble a businessman more than a "cult" leader. Gottleib and Wiley assert that it was at this time that the Church—with its deification of the nuclear family and its views on chastity—found itself ideologically in sync with the rest of the nation, helping to "establish the church as a mainstream church with a sturdy American character."

The turbulent cultural and social changes of the '60s threatened both the Church's new position as well as its fundamental views on morality and family. Church authorities responded in 1960 with their own revolution known as Correlation, a massive bureaucratic reorganization and centralization and a doctrinal toughening whose aim was to insulate members and safeguard the family from the evils of the outside world.

As a result of Correlation, every facet of LDS life—from dress, to grooming, to entertainment, to lifestyle habits—demanded conformity to an explicitly written standard. Guidelines such as those found in the "Word of Wisdom" because strict prohibitions. With the exception of the 1978 revelation admitting black men into the priesthood, the Church has prided itself on not swaying from these standards, unapologetically keeping itself and its members ideologically and culturally frozen in a pre-1960s America.

"We live in a day of shifting values, of changing standards, of will-o'-the-wisp programs that blossom in the morning and die in the evening," wrote LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley in a 2005 issue of Ensign, the official Church magazine. "While standards generally may totter, we of the Church are without excuse if we drift in the same manner. We have standards—sure, tested and effective. Some of them may appear a little out of date in our society, but this does not detract from their validity."

That most of Mormonism's prized dishes hearken back to an era—and an America—they so loved is thus no surprise. That America just happened to be in the throes of its first love affair with prepared, packaged foods at the time is unfortunate. That the Church remains culinarily suspended there like a melon chunk in a blob of horse hoof powder is, for many, tragic.

"Utah has always been a little behind," says Jennifer Hines of Rockhill Creamery, one of the few artisanal cheese producers in Utah. A non-Mormon from Colorado, she and her husband Peter Schropp are part of a new wave of gourmand apostates, outsiders and rebels who are shaking things up, questioning doctrine, testing limits and keeping things interesting.

Though Hines assures me that everyone has welcomed them, even praised their pioneering efforts, as she and I make Gruyère out of the milk from her five cows in her Cache Valley farm (an area known for its cheese production), she becomes wistful for a community of cheese craftsmen like the one in Vermont. Here in Zion, she admits, “We’re sort of freaks.”

For Bill Oblock of Crumb Brothers Bakery, “the biggest divide is the economic divide, it is a cultural mindset of not wanting to spend too much on anything.” In order to sell what is undoubtedly the best artisanal bread in Utah, it is a mindset that he must deal with and surmount. But even as a non-Mormon in Mormon country, it’s one he understands. “If you have eight kids, a good portion of your money is going to the church and you just don’t have very much money, you and I would be in the same situation.”

Thrift is a Mormon virtue. In fact, it’s identified as one of the “ten neglected virtues that will heal our hearts and homes” in LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s latest book, Standing for Something. And in the classic Mormon romance novel, Charly, one of the tests the heroine employs to decide which of her suitors is marriage-worthy is to make them each attempt a week’s worth of grocery shopping for less than $30.

While Mormons are thus understandably terrified of Oblock’s delicious $2.99 baguettes, it’s more than just the price tag that strikes fear into their hearts. “I’ve had a few people who are so resistant, they just want to get out the door. They’re worried that they got stuck in something that they weren’t ready for.”

Not ready for what exactly? Oblock doesn’t know. Neither do I. This is just bread we’re talking about. Shouldn’t bread, so basic and universal, be able to bridge any divide? “Maybe small bridges, maybe tenuous bridges,” Oblock says. “If you can get a customer to taste it, and maybe talk about value, I think you have potential to make it happen. I try to be real optimistic and think that there’s hope for everybody to change.”

Later on he reveals what it would really take: the prophet having a revelation on the subject. Ironically enough, the prophet, Mormonism’s first and founding prophet, Joseph Smith, already did. In addition to its prohibitions, the “Word of Wisdom” also includes dietary guidelines, encouraging whole grains, seasonal produce and the sparing use of meats. “Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving,” is good advice quite along the lines of current culinary trends favouring a return to fresh, seasonal food. You would think what with such dietary doctrine and a rich agrarian tradition that Saints wouldn’t need a woman from New York City to show them which root vegetable is which.

“This is a turnip,” explains Marguerite Hendersen, slicing it and plunking into the pot. A group of women stand around her, mesmerized. She will do this with every vegetable she uses while the women nod, murmur, take notes. I watch the light of knowledge dawn, then dim, then dawn over their faces. It’s a long process. There are many concerns, questions. But Hendersen, a Brooklyn woman of Sicilian heritage, isn’t known as the food lady of Salt Lake City for nothing. In addition to her former cooking segment on KSL (a local Church-owned TV station) and catering for the likes of Senator Orrin Hatch, she is the author of two cookbooks, one featuring recipes from Cucina, a deli she used to own in Salt Lake City. She has been teaching Utah women how to cook for twenty years.

“When I started teaching here in 1980, I thought, this is such fertile ground to teach people how to cook really good Mediterranean food. Or really good food, period. It was like a Petri dish ready to explode,” she says.

Like me, Hendersen came to Zion because she married into a Mormon family. Together, we commiserate over family dinner disasters. Her left eye twitches as she recounts the time her mother-in-law cooked lamb in a bag for six hours. I tell her about the pink gloop. “It’s the absence of dining as an art,” she sighs. “There’s no tradition, there’s no joy in it, it’s like a…chore.”

After Hendersen performs the seeming alchemy of turning unfamiliar roots into wholesome soups, she serves them to her students and we all dine together in her kitchen. Not only will the women leave knowing how to identify and negotiate a turnip, but they’ll have broken bread and shared a meal, maybe even talked to one another.

“I’m converting people,” laughs Hendersen. “I feel like I’m on a mission; this is my mission in life. Elder Henderson is here to convert you to good food.”

But what about good Mormon food? Hell’s Backbone Grill is the restaurant at the end of the universe, situated in the most remote region of the lower forty-eight states, in the inaccessible Mormon town of Boulder, Utah, population 200, the last in America to stop receiving its mail by mule. Named after a nearby narrow wooden bridge straddling Box Death Hollow, one of the state’s more formidable canyons, you will know it by the brightly coloured Buddhist prayer flags that hang outside, flapping in the primordial wind.

Hell’s Backbone Grill, then, is where I went to eat good Mormon food. That it was prepared for me by Arizona Buddhists is really, I feel, beside the point.

I had already read With A Measure of Grace, a cookbook/memoir of how two non-Mormon women, Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle, not only launched a real restaurant in the desert, but how they used food as a way to integrate themselves into a rural, Mormon community. I knew they grew their own vegetables, and picked fruit from the historic Annie’s Orchard, a portion of which they tend. I knew they used old Mormon cooking techniques and ingredients. I knew their meat was supplied by Mormon ranchers who allow Spalding to bless the animal prior to slaughter with a dropperful of tincture prepared by Tibetan Buddhist lamas. And that sometimes they apply it themselves (the practice is actually very much in keeping with the Mormon idea that animals have souls and that they will testify for or against you on Judgment Day.) And I knew their mostly Mormon waiters had been trained about wine by “sniffing” it.

That said, I wasn’t prepared for the unassuming room with its vast windows overlooking miles of heartbreakingly beautiful nowhere. I wasn’t prepared for black powder biscuits and butter with fresh-snipped sage. I wasn’t prepared for fondue made with cheese from Utah goats, Swiss chard and pumpkin soup from the garden, and a beautiful posole made from a local pig that was now being prayed for in a monastery somewhere in Asia. I wasn’t prepared for the sight of Mormon waiters smilingly pouring wines they would never sip, for an apple blossom made from fruit off hundred-year-old Mormon trees. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for a two-and-a-half hour dinner, in which Spalding and Castle not only dined with me but talked.

Of course one or both of them had to keep getting up. For not only does it turn out that the restaurant at the end of the universe is packed, but more people kept coming in. Tourists come to hike the Grand Escalante, a nearby national monument, but many locals too, some even former employees. Spalding and Castle warmly greeted each one. We get introduced to everyone—Mormon, non-Mormon, apostates, outsiders. By the end of the evening, the tables are merely decorative, and it’s the best kind of chaos, the one born out of a meal shared.

It all seemed natural, but to create this kind of vibe required the sort of toil and dedication of which few people are capable. It is no easy feat to grow a garden in the desert, let alone tap-dance for a liquor license in Mormon country, the first ever to be granted in the history of Boulder. “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” says Spalding. “Well,” she smiles, “this just about killed me.”  Difficult, but possible, then, to dine among the Saints. Of course, the success of Hell’s Backbone Grill has a lot to do with its remote location. Being based in Boulder shields Spalding and Castle from the cultural consequences of the Church’s expansion, its bureaucratic bullying, its obsession with standard making, and with differentiating itself and its followers from the rest of the world.

Still, big steps start small, and at the next family potluck I brought rolls as requested, but purchased them from a local organic bakery. This frustrated my husband, who felt I hadn’t learned from the cupcake disaster. “Don’t you understand that they would actually prefer the squishy 99c ones?” As usual, he was right. No one touched them.

Months later, while my husband and I were on vacation in a land far from Utah, Utah came to us in the form of a visit from Crystal and Legrand. For ten days we toured Switzerland and Italy together, days in which I drank my coffee clandestinely, in which copies of the Book of Mormon and propaganda DVDs would be slipped into my purse, in which dinner was eaten at 4:30 PM and consisted of either awkward silence or awkward attempts at conversation. And always, we did it sober.

But I cracked toward the end, at a dinner somewhere in Tuscany, and ordered a half-bottle of some house Chianti with bravado, pretending not to see Crystal and Legrand exchange sideways glances. I had never felt so brazen as when I drank that glass and a half of ambrosia before those Osmond smiles. When all but a few sips remained, Crystal seized my glass and stared at her husband. He covered his eyes with a hand, while she drained the glass of its last drop and sighed, then laughed, embarrassed. We laughed with her. It wasn’t Hell’s Backbone, but it was a bridge, small and tenuous.