Typical Utah cuisine is often thought of as Jell-O or the cornflake-crusted funeral potatoes laced with sour cream and cheese.
“I think of a Training Table and Costa Vida when I think of Utah food,” said Cassie Krey, a Weber State University business student. “Oh, and funeral potatoes.”
However, Brock Cheney, the author of “Plain But Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers,” commented on a different kind of cuisine in the Hurst Alumni Center on Monday, promoting his new book and dispelling the mythos around pioneer traditions.
“My thought was folks that like history and Utah tend to be enamored by the pioneers,” Cheney said. “So I was looking for a topic that would have broad appeal and have not yet been studied too much and would connect back to the pioneers. Everybody loves food, so it is something that everybody would understand.”
Cheney, a WSU alumnus, started thinking about food while living in Colorado around 2000 and became inspired when working in Fort Buenaventura. After leaving his position at Buenaventura, he was allowed to pursue his book idea.
“I think our modern food trends have really evolved quite far from our historical foods,” Cheney said, “so my focus largely ended with the coming of the railroad in 1870, because that event changed everything about the landscape.”
The sego lily saved the pioneers and formed a type of Thanksgiving parallel to the settlers in Jamestown.
“The sego lily sprouts like a bulb, and the reason why it is our state flower (is) because one winter, when the pioneers were starving, the Indians showed them how to find these bulbs, and they subsisted on those till their crops could become viable. So, oftentimes, people think of those sego bulbs as the quintessential Mormon food, but really it was an emergency disaster food. For the Mormon pioneers, the standby staple was bread, and potatoes and starches and carbohydrates, but that was the bulk of their diet. For example, bread pudding would be a very typical meal.”
Cheney went on to explain the possible origin of modern-day popular Utah foods.
“It’s an interesting thought that maybe the funeral potatoes are the modern manifestation. If you were to think of a modern parallel — you know, they say it’s Jell-O, green Jell-O or a salad, what mind you — a Jell-O might be thought of as a sort of a pudding. So maybe the green Jell-O salad is a modern incarnation of the historical pudding, except that it’s morphed and transformed in 100 ways from its original.”
Quick on the jokes, Cheney informed his crowd what it meant to be a Mormon pioneer and what the typical diet consisted of, and explained the infamous coffee taboo.
“The Mormon admonition against coffee and tobacco and alcohol came in the 1830s, before they ever came to Utah. That was laid down as a good idea, originally. The Word of Wisdom, if you’re smart, this is a good way to go. But Brigham Young made a list of things you ought to bring if you were a thoughtful, well-prepared pioneer, and on the list was coffee and also alcohol. So, the good Word of Wisdom was a good, thoughtful idea for a long, long, long, long time, and not until quite late into the 20th century did it become this very rigid sort-of commandment that shall not be violated. Maybe the immigrant group had ethnic traditions that celebrate alcohol or coffee as part of their identity. Almost half of the early settlers of Brigham City were Danish or British.”
Brett Craygun, a WSU geography student who attended the event, has deep roots in Utah.
“I thought that it was interesting that he did most of his research here at Weber State,” Craygun said. “When you think of Mormons, you think of funeral potatoes and green Jell-O. You don’t think of sego lily bulbs. I thought it was interesting they ate what was in season and fruit was important to them.”