If you’re from Utah, you might eat these classic foods while sipping on a famous Bear Lake raspberry milkshake (or even a huckleberry shake) or while gulping down an (extra) dirty Diet Coke. What makes these foods iconic in Utah? And why aren’t they popular in other states like Colorado or California?
Funeral potatoes have a long history in Utah and among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many from this corner of the West find these potatoes nostalgic.
In Salt Lake Magazine, Tammy Hanchett, a third-generation Utahn, recalled her grandmother making funeral potatoes for Sunday dinner. “My grandmother used to make her own white sauce, and she never had an exact recipe,” Hanchett said. “She’d add a dollop of this and a dollop of that. I’ll never taste potatoes like that again.”
But there are other reasons why this dairy-filled dish is one of Utah’s staples.
In an interview with NPR, Jacqueline Thursby described how Latter-day Saints had big families and even bigger congregations to feed. The Latter-day Saint life is filled with endless potlucks, giving food to the sick, funerals, weddings, activities and births. Funeral potatoes provided a thrifty solution, she explained.
In other words, funeral potatoes became “an essential fast food for hard times.”
The Deseret News investigated the true origins of this peculiar condiment and determined that Arctic Circle invented this delicacy. One Arctic Circle restaurant in Provo, Utah, mixed ketchup and mayo and a phenomenon was born.
Even though Rick Edwards guards the original fry sauce recipe, fry sauce is found at many hamburger restaurants in Utah. It seems to have caught on organically — after Arctic Circle started selling it, more and more customers wanted to buy it.
In 2016, Eater reported that Arctic Circle dining rooms alone (not including drive-thru or retail) go through 50,000 gallons of fry sauce per year. Other chains in Utah have gotten into the fry sauce selling game, and it’s impossible to imagine Utah without it.
Christy Spackman wrote for Slate that the answer behind Utah’s wholehearted acceptance of green Jell-O might be an effective marketing campaign.
Jell-O decided to market as a family-friendly brand and Utah has a well-earned reputation for being a state with big families. Utahns devoured up the snack. Shortly after this campaign, Utah dipped below Iowa in the amount of Jell-O purchased, but this didn’t matter. Spackman wrote, “The Utah capital’s reign was short lived. Only two years later, Des Moines, Iowa, edged out Salt Lake City for the No. 1 spot. But by then, the popular association of Utah and Jell-O had jelled, both inside and outside the state.”
This reputation has stuck ever since. What started as a way for Jell-O to rehabilitate its reputation and present itself as a family-friendly brand has ended with Utah naming the gelatinous dessert the official snack of the state. The Green Jello Salad (aka Mormon Jello Salad) is now an iconic staple, appearing frequently at Relief Society fundraisers and family reunions.
One Latter-day Saint blogger, Ardis E. Parshall, found what might be the earliest mention of a gelatin salad in Latter-day Saint history. She wrote, “This recipe appears in an 1898 issue of the “Young Woman’s Journal,” seven years after Charles Knox invented granulated (but unflavored) gelatin for convenient household use (according to this Kraft Foods history), and a year after sweetened, flavored Jell-o was invented and the year before its inventor sold his process to General Foods (according to this New York Times history).”
Even to this day, Jell-O remains a big part of Utah and Latter-day Saint culture.