Funeral potatoes — one of the “greatest American triumphs,” at least according to Food and Wine.
They are so iconic that they have made it into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ general conference. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said during the October 2010 general conference, “We smile sometimes about our sisters’ stories — you know, green Jell-O, quilts, and funeral potatoes. But my family has been the grateful recipient of each of those items at one time or another — and in one case, the quilt and the funeral potatoes on the same day.”
These dairy-filled delightful potato casseroles are associated with philanthropy and service of the Relief Society. Elisabeth Sherman wrote for Matador Network, “In order to ease the burdens of grieving families, Relief Society members whipped up the dish to serve at post-funeral luncheons, which is how it earned its unflattering moniker.”
But why funeral potatoes? Why not other casserole dishes or other meals? What has made funeral potatoes a Latter-day Saint staple?
Are funeral potatoes the equivalent of McDonald’s for Latter-day Saints?
Quick, easy and delicious — funeral potatoes are the mix of convenience and home-cooked meals that Latter-day Saints gravitate toward.
Jacqueline Thursby, a retired folklore professor at Brigham Young University, described funeral potatoes as fast food. She said in an interview with NPR, “It was even more perfect for the Relief Society, the Mormon female auxiliary organization involved in ministering to the sick, poor and otherwise afflicted, who needed quick meals for the endless births, weddings, and deaths they attended. Funeral potatoes became a staple — an essential fast food for hard times.”
NPR described funeral potatoes as a “blend of pioneer self-reliance and ’50s comfort cooking.” In many ways, recipes for funeral potatoes combine both of these things.
Potatoes are plentiful in Utah and Idaho, making the surrounding areas conducive to serving up potato dishes. Casseroles are the quintessential food for serving large groups of people — it only makes sense that potato casseroles would be popular among Latter-day Saints. Not all Latter-day Saints live in Utah or Idaho (not even most), but the religion has strong ties to the area and much of its culture developed in this area.
Since condensed soup and cornflakes are cheap ingredients, they also become natural contenders for incorporating into the casserole. Tuna casseroles are one of the most American casserole dishes, and they share similar ingredients with funeral potatoes. Utah and Idaho are landlocked and fish used to be much more difficult to transport: a potato-based casserole makes more sense for the region.
While we may not know the precise reason why Latter-day Saints make funeral potatoes, it does seem like it being a budget-friendly mix of home-cooked and convenience foods has something to do with it.