This past Christmas, my parents came out here to Utah for the holidays, and the four of us (myself, Joseph, and my mom and dad) went out to Bountiful, Utah for a dinner with Joseph’s folks at his grandmother’s house. Joseph’s grandmother ran a couple of restaurants in Salt Lake City for awhile – one of them, called Brad’s Café, served home cooking to a big lunch crowd of workers. A popular menu item was “Hot Hamburgers,” which Joseph remembers as “one bun and two patties, served as two open-faced burgers, smothered in brown gravy.” Brown gravy, by the way, is what cooks outside the Jell-O Belt might know as “pan gravy,” made from whisking a roux into the fat and juices and scraps left from roasting a bird or a rump roast or even pork shoulder. You can buy this in powdered packets labeled simply “Brown Gravy,” though that’s not what Joseph’s grandmother does. Joseph’s grandmother cooked daily for a crowd in the restaurant, and weekly for the crowd of family that gathered at her house for a traditional Mormon Sunday Dinner. Joseph’s grandmother is a sturdy, unapologetic woman whose basement has been the refuge for many a grandchild in various stages of transition, and whose generosity never falters; despite the fact that the fused vertebrae in her back make it almost unbearably painful for her to stand or work more than five minutes or so at a time, she presented us with a mountain of home-made cookies and candies, and a homemade dinner of spiral-cut ham, honey-glazed and glistening, slightly-opaque green Jell-O salad with whipped cream on top, as well as the kind of salad that has lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and vinagrette. There were white rolls and butter, Jane’s hot mustard (of course), and what my mother would call potatoes au gratin. “This looks amazing,” I said. Joseph’s father Frank said, grinning, “It looks like a Mormon funeral in here.”
The casserole dish my mother would call “potatoes au gratin” Joseph’s family (and everybody who’s spent the requisite amount of time in the Jell-O Belt) would call “funeral potatoes”. They aren’t quite potatoes au gratin, though the principle is basically the same. Some people make them with cubed or scalloped potatoes (I slice them thin), some with grated hashbrown-style spuds. Some people use onions (I do), others prefer without. Often, funeral potatoes include a can of cream-of-something soup from the food storage (chicken is a popular choice, though I’ve also seen mushroom, broccoli, and asparagus). Since I don’t usually keep cream-of-whatever around, I just use sour cream. And then, of course, cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Usually cheddar – I use sharp cheddar but I’ve seen them made with everything from Velveeta to Danish Fontina. Even my lactose-intolerant boyfriend can’t help but have a little. “But I love them,” he says later, with a tummy-ache, “they just don’t love me back.”
Certain aspects of Mormon culture find their way into the lives of everybody who lives in the Jell-O Belt, because they’re just plain good. I’ve lived a lot of places (the Bay Area in California, Northern Virginia just outside of D.C., Dublin, Brooklyn, Rome) and I have liked – adored, really – almost every place I lived, for its own different virtues. But not a single one of those places holds a candle to the Jell-O Belt when it comes to people getting born, people moving house, and people dying. When my sister moved away, we had a dozen people show up at our house and it took all of about an hour to pack her entire apartment into a trailer, then we all settled in for the pizza and beer. When my friend Tim’s girlfriend moved in, so many people came to help that by the time the stragglers arrived (forty-five minutes after the appointed hour), the work was done and they had to eat their pizza and drink their beer in shame.
And when somebody is born or somebody dies, the family whose attention everyone agrees cannot be expected to be on cooking or grocery shopping is brought meal upon meal upon meal. These meals have to feed a lot of people, so they have to be fairly simple and inexpensive, calorically extraordinary, and accessible to all palates (if not all arteries). They have to last awhile, and reheat well. A distinct advantage to funeral potatoes, they can be served a side with breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or as a meal in and of themselves. They’re tasty, cheap, versatile, and popular, and even if they aren’t per se healthy, you can get your basic carbs, veggies, and protein from the one simple dish. Like most Mormon food (like most Mormons) they are imminently practical.
Obviously, funeral potatoes aren’t only served at funerals – they’re also served at, say, a Christmas dinner. Or a Sunday dinner. Or a potluck. Or on a day that ends in Y. The amateur cultural critic in me reads into this a kind of tacit communal acceptance of the everyday-ness of tragedy that not all cultures share. We Americans are, generally, an optimistic bunch who view death (especially of the young and virile) as a radical upset of the natural and social order of things, a rift in the time-space continuum. When you live in a community that is both sizeable and close-knit, you quickly come to understand that simply isn’t the case. Tragedy is, tragically, a very everyday occurrence. And it’s good to have a community around when it happens.
When my late partner, Craig, passed away in 2009, I was living in Salt Lake City, Utah. As soon as word of what was happening got out, my friends (especially Kathryn and Tim) sprang into action. It was something I could never have imagined – someone brought a lunch or dinner every single day. And while the food was amazing (Halina’s chicken and orzo soup, or crispy salad; Danielle’s burritos; Kathryn’s amazing cheese), what I couldn’t have imagined until it was happening was how much I needed the other things that came along with this schedule of meals. For example, I had to get out of bed and take a shower before noon, since somebody was going to see me. My long, confusing days of terror and then of shock and then of sorrow were organized into hours by my friends. Without them, each day would have been a long night of panic and grief, unbroken and maybe un-break-in-able. And each person who came also stayed and ate with me, and that activity, the communion of breaking bread with a friend, was a sacred and sustaining ritual. If I wanted to talk, there was someone to talk to; if I wanted a distraction, there was someone to distract me. And above all, when I felt the most lonesome I have perhaps ever felt, I found I never had to be alone. When I started to feel better, when summer came and people began to drift away for various jobs and residencies and vacations, my beloved teachers and friends Donald Revell and Claudia Keelan took me in for awhile. They fed me wine and smoked salmon and guacamole and let me sleep and sleep. We watched old movies and talked about poems, and I began to understand that, unbelievably, everything might be okay.
This was not a ward community – this was (mostly) a community of people with whom I worked while in graduate school at the University of Utah. And I’m not saying this couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened in Brooklyn or in Washington, D.C. But I do know that when my mother called and said, “Just come home,” my instinctive response (though I did want my Mommy) was, “I am home.”
Now, any strong community pays a steep price for its cohesiveness, so let me add some caveats here. As I have seen time and again, especially here in the Jell-O Belt, even the most progressive of communities tacitly require their members to “belong” by whatever spoken or unspoken set of rules and expectations they happen to abide by. In some communities, that might mean you can’t have facial hair, or that you must; in some, it might mean you have to cover your hair, in others it might mean you should dye it when it starts to go gray; some communities require people to be polite, others require people to speak their minds; some communities require people to renounce liberal politics, others require their members to renounce conservative politics. I belong to a community that does not tolerate certain kinds of language (for example, extreme religious rhetoric), but I live among a community that does not tolerate another kind of language (cussing) that, to be honest, I’m okay with. This is, for better and for worse, how communities work and I strive to be mindful of it, so we aren’t asking people to be someone they aren’t, to hide or lie or live in fear, just for the benefit of our own sense of comfort and security.
And community is changing – it’s not just who brings the funeral potatoes, now, with Facebook and Twitter and GooglePlus and everything else. We are organized nationally, globally, into communities of interests and cultural commonalities and when Craig passed away, our family was encircled by the literary community at large, who were also shocked, and anxious, and desperate, and incredibly helpful in writing letters to Senators and Congresspeople and consulates, raising money to fund search teams after he didn’t come back from his solo hike, and much more. But as one NPR commentator observed last week, these new interfaces for community threaten to segregate us as much as gather us, because it becomes possible only to communicate with people who are just like you. And then you’re no better than the nice ladies around the corner, who seem to be a little suspicious of us because Joseph smokes out front.
But however you define and and wherever you describe it, community is important. And it’s really easy to make a batch of funeral potatoes for a friend in need. Recently, a friend in need ended up on our couch for a couple of weeks – at first, I admit, I was not at all pleased with the situation. But Joseph, who is as generous as he is clever, gently reminded me what kind of people we aspire to be. And it was great – Ryan did all the dishes for two weeks straight. I am certain that no small amount of the outpouring for Craig was a return on his generosity, too – as long as I knew him, no friend of Craig’s was ever without a ride home from the airport, a couch to surf, a hot meal, a hook-up. There’s an old Arabic proverb that translates, roughly, “A stranger in trouble is a gift from God.” I’ll follow that up with D.H. Lawrence and say, just, “Admit them, admit them.”
Tomorrow: why W.H. Auden called food writer M.F.K Fisher “the best prose writer in America,” some food poems, and the various delights of writing about yummy things, along with a plug for the new McSweeney’s magazine Lucky Peach