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Potatoes to die for

With slight variations, spud casserole is a hit all over the country

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In Wisconsin, they're known as Heart-Stopper Hash Browns, for all their artery-clogging sour cream, butter and cheese. In New Jersey, they're Party Potatoes. In Detroit, they're Cheesy Potato Casserole. Folks in Pennsylvania call them Pittsburgh Potatoes. In a Virginia cookbook, they're a Church Social Potato Casserole, and in Florida, they're Churchlady Potatoes.

In fact, most Utahns didn't even start calling them Funeral Potatoes until the past five years or so. By that time, they were a staple at the dinners given for bereaved friends and family after a funeral, not to mention potluck suppers and other get-togethers. Since the creamy spuds were immortalized with an Olympic pin, they are firmly entrenched as part of Utah food culture, along with zucchini, fry sauce and green Jell-O. "The pin has never been officially called Funeral Potatoes," said Craig Weston of Aminco, the company that makes the Olympics pins. "We labeled it as potato casserole, but the secondary market has put that tag name on it. That's the life of Olympic pins, people will come up with a name, and it will stick."

The recipe is one that has appeared by other names in community cookbooks and on packages of frozen hash browns. The hash browns are swimming in sour cream, grated cheese, a little chopped onion and cream-of-something soup (mushroom, chicken, celery or potato, depending on your recipe and what's in your pantry). Crushed, buttery cornflakes are the usual topping.

Carol-Ann Jensen Fuller of Roy wrote a similar recipe called "Class of '55 Casserole" in her "Spud Bugg's Cookbook." She said she hadn't heard of "funeral potatoes" while growing up on a potato farm in Idaho, or during the first years she lived in Utah.

"When I first tried tried them at a school potluck during the mid '80s, I liked them so well, I went home and played with the recipe a little," she said. "I didn't hear them called Funeral Potatoes until after I had written my book in 1990. A friend read the recipe and said 'Oh, that's a lot like Funeral Potatoes.' It's a good dish for funerals because it keeps well and reheats well."

Marilyn Child of Layton said she first ate them at a wedding breakfast more than 20 years ago, under the name of Sour Cream Potatoes. Later, as her LDS ward's Relief Society president, she headed up the after-funeral dinners and often assigned other church members to bring them. But it wasn't until last year she heard them referred to as Funeral Potatoes.

"We often have ham after the funeral, and they go well with ham," Child said. "They're easy for people to make, and when you say you need a potato casserole, most people know what you mean. In fact, we've got a funeral tomorrow, and we'll be making them."

But it's interesting how everyone tends to bring a little different version, she said. Her recipe calls for buttered cornflakes on top, but some just use the cheese as a topping instead of mixing it with the potatoes. Others used crushed potato chips for a topping or vary the type of creamed soup.

Although they've gained a bit of local fame, they're not Utah's first "funeral food." Fuller said around the turn of the century, raisin pie was commonly known as "funeral pie." "Almost everyone had raisins in their pantry, and if there was a funeral in the winter when fruit was hard to come by, you could always make a raisin pie," she said.

When food writers and editors around the country were asked if they're heard of Funeral Potatoes, only Deb Pankey of the Chicago Daily Herald recognized this dish by that name. "Here in suburban Chicago, we call them Funeral Potatoes," wrote Pankey, who last ran a recipe for the dish in 1998.

Judy Walker, now in New Orleans, said she had never heard of Funeral Potatoes until she did a story for The Arizona Republic about Utah's Olympic food pins. "Mesa and the East Valley of the greater Phoenix area have a sizable LDS population, but nobody I asked had ever heard of it either."

"We call it simply Hash Brown Potato Casserole, and it's a favorite pot-luck dish around the South for family reunions, church socials and other occasions," said Anne Braly, food editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But after a recent funeral, I did see several dishes of it, so I guess, in that case, you would call them Funeral Potatoes."

Dolores Kostelni of Lexington, Va., said her cousin first discovered this potato casserole under a different name years ago, while living in Northridge, Calif. Kostelni embellished it with a bag of frozen tiny peas and a cup of freshly chopped parsley. She changed the name to Talk of the Town Potato Casserole.

"Whenever I've made this potato casserole, whether for a church supper, potluck, shower (not yet a funeral), tennis lunch, holiday brunch — it becomes the talk of the town," Kostelni said. "It's indestructible. Anyone can make it. You can carry it anywhere, and it holds up and reheats without worry. Add carrots, peas, chopped broccoli, chopped parsley — it's a great supper casserole, too. It's even good cold for breakfast. It could be one of the best recipes every devised."

(Is this woman a Utahn at heart?)

Other regions of the country have their own favorite type of food to take to funeral dinners. "We didn't call them Funeral Potatoes, but we did bring potatoes of one sort or another for the buffet table after a funeral," said Valerie Hart, food editor of the Daily Commercial in Leesburg, Fla. "They always included chopped hard-boiled eggs, because the egg, in the Judeo-Christian religions, represents life."

Jane Mergenhauser of Alexandria, Va., said that in her Catholic parish the oft-served dish is Funeral Carrots — a salad that's also called Copper Pennies.

Elizabeth Johnson of the (White Plains, N.Y.) Journal News shared a recipe for Funeral Hot Dish that's popular in Minnesota, where her mother-in-law lives. It contains hamburger, celery, onions, rice, mushrooms and cashew nuts. She recounted how her mother-in-law brought Funeral Hot Dish to her own mother's 90th birthday, which horrified the rest of the family.

"Regardless of the name, it's good for a gathering, and of course I put a lot more hamburger and extra cashews, and it's very rich," the mother-in-law said in defense.

Kitty Crider of the Austin American-Statesman said King Ranch Chicken is the mainstay for funerals and potlucks in central Texas. "A lot of people assume that this recipe came from the King Ranch, but there is no proof," she writes. "It's one of those Texas recipes that's been out there for decades and is a great potluck item."

Al Sicherman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune said his former mother-in-law makes a terrific noodle kugel that she always brings to funeral dinners. "I decided at some point to use the recipe in an article, and I called her to ask for it. Her response was 'Who died?'"


FUNERAL HOT DISH

This is popular in Minnesota.

1 pound of ground beef

1 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup onion, chopped

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

1 can of cream of mushroom soup

1 can of cream of chicken soup

1 can of water

1/3 cup white rice

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3/4 cup cashews pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the beef, celery and onion in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until the meat is brown and the onion transparent. Then mix all the ingredients together and bake in an uncovered dish for an 1-1 1/2 hours. If it starts getting too brown around the edges turn the temperature down to 300. Before serving, add cashews. — Elizabeth Johnson


KING RANCH CHICKEN

This is popular funeral food in central Texas.

3 pounds chicken breasts

1 large onion, chopped

1 large green pepper, chopped

2 tablespoons margarine

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 dash garlic powder

1 can cream of chicken soup

1 can cream of mushroom soup

1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes and chiles, drained and chopped

12 corn tortillas, torn into strips

3/4 pound cheddar cheese, grated

Cook chicken breasts and reserve 1 cup broth. Bone chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces. Sauté onion and green pepper in margarine. Combine chili powder, garlic powder, soups, broth and Ro-Tel. Place half of the chicken in a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish; top with half the soup mixture; tortilla strips, onion and green pepper. Add a layer of cheese. Repeat layers. When finished, cover with foil. Bring to church unbaked. (Or bake at 350 degrees until heated through, 30-45 minutes.) Makes 12 servings.

Note: Meat from a whole chicken can be subbed instead of chicken breasts. — Kitty Crider


FUNERAL POTATOES

2 10-ounce packages frozen hash browns (or 1 2-pound package, or 6 boiled potatoes, shredded or cubed)

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 pint sour cream

1 can cream of chicken soup

1 can cream of celery soup

1/2 to 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Pepper to taste (due to the soups, it usually needs no salt)

1/2 stick butter, melted

1 cup crushed corn flakes

Allow hash browns to thaw about 30 minutes. Mix together onions, sour cream, soups, cheese and pepper, then mix in potatoes. Place all ingredients in a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Mix butter with corn flakes and sprinkle on top of the casserole. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Microwave: Before adding cornflake crumbs, cook 10 minutes on high. Stir. Sprinkle on cornflake crumbs and cook an additional 10 minutes.

VARIATIONS

Reduced-Fat Funeral Potatoes: Use hash browns with no added fat (such as Simply Shreds.) Use reduced-fat creamed soups, reduced-fat sour cream, add 1/2 cup milk and omit the melted butter. Sprinkle the cheese over the cornflakes instead of mixing it with the potatoes.

Funeral Potatoes O'Brien: Use O'Brien style hash browns, or add 1/2 cup chopped red and green pepper to regular hash browns.

Nacho Mama's Funeral Potatoes: Add 2 small cans diced green chilis and 1 cup of either cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese. Top with crushed tortilla chips.

Bacon Funeral Potatoes: Mix in 1/2 cup jarred, real bacon pieces and 1/2 cup milk to basic recipe.

Herbed Funeral Potatoes: Add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary and 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder to the potato mixture. Before serving, sprinkle chopped parsley on top.

Downsized: Divide recipe ingredients by half and bake in a 2-quart round casserole.


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com