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Cooking my way through ‘The Essential Mormon Cookbook’

Becoming something of a Latter-day Saint Julie Powell suited me, as a resident funeral potatoes connoisseur

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Loaded funeral potatoes are displayed at the Utah Foods Cook-Off at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi in 2020.

Loaded funeral potatoes are displayed at the Utah Foods Cook-Off at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi on Saturday, July 25, 2020. The event was a way to celebrate Utah’s unique pioneer heritage and food culture.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Where some saw comedy in the hit movie “Julie & Julia,” I saw a challenge.

The film details Julie Powell’s culinary journey. Powell determines to cook and blog every recipe of Julia Child’s famous cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Now unlike Powell, I deigned not to touch a live lobster and couldn’t locate a grocery store that stocks mutton and goose.

Instead of mastering the art of French cooking, I embarked on a journey that hit a little closer to home — I cooked my way through “The Essential Mormon Cookbook.”

Becoming something of a Latter-day Saint Julie Powell suited me, as a resident funeral potatoes connoisseur.

Julie Badger Jensen is the author behind “The Essential Mormon Cookbook.” She compiled dozens of recipes and said in the book that when she was 8 years old, she began collecting recipes beginning with a Lovable Lime Jell-O. I was positively smitten with Jensen’s writing style, which is cheery at every corner and enthusiastic about having family meals as a tradition.

“People’s lives are very involved with all kinds of schedules, but I think the family meal is a wonderful tradition that’s well worth keeping,” Jensen told the Deseret News in 2004.

With more than 200 recipes, I had my work cut out for me. As an eclectic home chef, I hardly discipline myself to follow recipes exactly, something this challenge demanded of me. I forged ahead by meticulously documenting my experience cooking each dish.

The staples of Latter-day Saint cooking were heavily represented. Potatoes. Cheese. Butter. But other flavors were present. Through cooking my way through the cookbook, I believe that I learned what Latter-day Saint cuisine looks like in a more complex way than I had before.

What I learned about Latter-day Saint cuisine

Jensen’s recipes revealed a lot about what Latter-day Saint cuisine really is.

It’s not particularly surprising that a number of the recipes are designed to feed a crowd. Latter-day Saints are known for big families and sharing potluck style meals. Cooking for a crowd is different in some ways — the dishes have to be strong enough to withstand adaptation and be appealing to wide groups of people.

While that typically means casseroles galore, Jensen shared other types of recipes like salads and sandwiches that can fill many plates. The recipes are rather forgiving — what I mean by that is a burgeoning amateur home cook who hasn’t done much besides boil water for pasta can pick up the cookbook and learn how to make delicious, comforting meals for the family.

In some ways, this is a metaphor for Latter-day Saint cuisine. The food is simple. The classic dishes like funeral potatoes and Jell-O are a medley of convenience foods with home cooking. A number of the recipes Jensen includes follows this style of mixing together canned goods with fresh foods and unique twists. Her cookbook is a great primer for anyone who is trying to see the evolution of Latter-day Saint cooking.

And frankly, her cookbook is fantastic for anyone who is learning to cook for a group of people with varied tastes.

My favorite recipes

I must confess that while I love beef stroganoff, I’ve been using Hamburger Helper for years. Even though I can cook some tricky dishes at this point, the convenience and consistency of Hamburger Helper was appealing to me.

So when I was about to try Jensen’s recipe, I was optimistic that this could become my substitute for Hamburger Helper. I had most of the ingredients on hand already except for the mushrooms. The way that she writes her recipes was helpful — she included visual details of what the food should look like at different stages.

The beef stroganoff exceeded my expectations and was a hit with my friends. What I appreciated about her recipe was I felt like I learned how to cook not merely follow a recipe when I read her instructions because of the visual cues she taught me to look for.

Another one of my favorite recipes from Jensen was her green Jell-O recipe. Now it’s time for another confession — before Jensen’s recipe, I had avoided Jell-O, but my evasion of this classic dish came to a halt when I tried her take on it.

She adds pineapple to the mixture, which gives it a delightful fruity flavor. The Jell-O had a mousse-like texture and then I suddenly began seeing it in that light. No longer was this recipe just a fixture reminiscent of mid-century modern conveniences booming in Utah, but it became the way to democratize fancy recipes.

And I’m enthusiastic about that.

Some other recipes surprised me. While I had heard of five cup salad for a while now, I hadn’t tried it. Five cup salad is a dish with a cup of each of the ingredients: sour cream, miniature marshmallows, pineapple, coconut and mandarin oranges.

My initial reaction to this recipe has always been that I don’t think sour cream and marshmallows could possibly go together, but trying it proved me wrong. The recipe itself is quite simple, and it’s surprisingly good. Trying the recipe and liking it was introspective — I realized that I was judgmental about some of the food I had seen over the last couple years. It made me have a more expansive view of the cuisine.

Cooking my way through the entire cookbook wasn’t easy, but the most important lesson that I learned was to never be afraid of trying something new.