White-people soul food

I was intrigued by this article in today’s New York Times about “Mormon cuisine,” not because (as is the point of the article) it’s changing (what cuisine isn’t?) but because I had trouble seeing what was uniquely Mormon about any of it.

Consider the two ne-plus-ultra examples of Mormon cooking offered by the author: “a fluffy dessert of whipped cream and crushed pineapple folded into lime gelatin,” and “funeral potatoes,” which is “a rich casserole of grated potatoes, sour cream, cheese and cream-of-something soup.” I’ve never seen anything quite like the funeral potatoes, but would they really be out of place at a church supper in Lake Wobegon — or in my hometown, circa 1979? And as for the green Jell-O salad1 with whipped cream2 and pineapple, please: my grandmother made something very like this, and she was Methodist from Delaware. My wife’s mother used to make something like it, and she is from eastern North Carolina, where Mormons may as well have been Martians.

It isn’t only Mormons over forty who have a soft spot for this stuff. This isn’t Mormon food; it’s middle-American white people food. The article does note briefly that in the 1960s, “Mormon women (like most Americans) enthusiastically embraced inexpensive convenience foods like canned fruit, instant potatoes and, of course, Jell-O” and that Mormons took longer than most to “come out of that phase,” but no explanation is offered as to why.

I’ll suggest a possible explanation, while admitting that I know little about Mormon culture specifically: Mormons may be more likely to hang on to those traditions simply because of their separate group identity. If I make Jell-O salad (as I occasionally do) it might be in memory of my grandmother and my own traditions, neither of which exerts all that strong a pull on behavior, and it’s apt to be a private act and thus end with me. If a Mormon makes Jell-O salad and thinks of that food as Mormon, it could be an expression of communal identity, which has a stronger influence and can be more easily performed in public — and thus perpetuate itself. She can do it sincerely, whereas I’m forced to offer Jell-O salad with a bit of irony.3

I see a parallel here to something I do know a good deal about, which is Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In the twentieth century, Pennsylvania Dutch culture and cuisine were increasingly identified with the Amish, specifically, because they were the most visible of the Dutch and the last to hold onto old ways, particularly the Pennsylfaanisch Deitsch dialect. You can buy an “Amish” cookbook (I have one on my shelf) and find recipes claiming to be specifically Amish that are just traditionally Dutch (stuffed pig’s stomach, souse, oyster pie, pepper relish), or that I ate growing up (chicken corn soup), or that are far more broadly American (cole slaw, seriously). There’s little in those books that’s unique to the Amish.

There was a time when the Amish weren’t much different from their neighbors, who also farmed and spoke German but worshiped differently and didn’t object to buttons, patterned clothes, and shaved chins. But their neighbors changed, and after about 1950, the Amish became a sort of mascot for the Pennsylvania Dutch — a personification of traditional values and practices that could neither be denied nor any longer fully owned. I wonder if now the Mormons are in the same way becoming mascots for middle-American white people who have decided that they’re too urbane and sophisticated for the traditions they grew up with, who can neither let them go nor accept ownership of them and therefore put them off onto another group — a group which is, like the Amish, easily identified by its unique religious strictures and (as everybody has to keep pointing out) special clothes, both laughingly scorned and wistfully celebrated. On the Amish coming to represent the Pennsylvania Dutch generally, see Walbert, Garden Spot, 2002, although I believe “mascot” is my word and not his.

I don’t mean disrespect by using the word “mascot” — or, rather, I probably do, but not to Amish or Mormons. And I don’t want to carry this analogy too far, even if the Amish had a Broadway musical once, too.4 I see no hope at all, for example, that we’ll elect an Amish president this fall — even though I’m pretty sure he’d be a marked improvement over the current Mormon option.

  1. It is a “salad,” where I come from, a side dish, even if it’s got whipped cream in it. Do Mormons actually eat it as dessert? Please, somebody, answer in the comments if you can.
  2. And is it really whipped cream, or is Cool Whip actually traditional and we don’t want to admit it?
  3. Not that I have ever brought home leftovers from a potluck. If you grew up with it, Jell-O salad is soul food.
  4. Apparently high schools still perform it.