It’s an absolute delight to be guest-blogging again here at Best American Poetry. I’ve just returned from a marvelous residency and a series of readings from the new book, and since I’ve been traveling I have found myself talking quite often – and often at my interlocutor’s behest – about Utah. Specifically, why do I live there (no, I’m not Mormon – I moved here for grad school in 2003), why don’t I leave (the mountains, the boyfriend, the good life, the job market), and what is it really like. We sometimes joke that Utah’s unofficial Chamber of Commerce slogan should be “Utah: Not nearly as bad as you thought.” But then, I should probably add that I myself have kind of an affinity for quirk, and there’s plenty that’s quirky in Utah. So this week I’ll be blogging about living in Utah, and specifically about food in Utah. Food is, I think, a marvelous lens through which to look at culture, and place, and philosophy, and well, maybe also poetry. I hope you have half the fun reading that I’m having writing these pieces…so without further ado…
Welcome to the Jell-O Belt
In 2001, the good people of Salt Lake City, Utah eked out their competitors in Des Moines, Iowa to become the number one consumer of Jell-O not just in Christendom, but in the whole wide world. The state legislature celebrated by drafting and passing a resolution that would make wobbly puddings, wiggly salads, and sugar-free hospital desserts the “official snack” of the Beehive State. To commemorate the occasion, Jell-O brand spokesperson and family-friendly comedian Bill Cosby made a visit to Utah, during which he declared, "I'm proud not because you are the number one in consuming gelatin, but because you are the number one family state," he said. "In consuming all of this pudding, you have said you are a state that brings family wherever you go."
A visit to the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will lead you swiftly to one of the central tenants of Mormonism. “The Family is Central to God’s Plan,” announces one headline, under which appears a quote from one of the church’s more important elders, David O. McKay, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” The vaguely threatening, implicitly judgmental tone is almost certainly deliberate – the LDS church runs a pretty tight PR ship. It is under the banner of “family” that many things are forbidden – R-rated movies, alcoholic beverages, gambling – and more tacitly disapproved of – radical politics, for example, and for some, even higher education. (A billboard on I-15 south from Salt Lake City to Provo shows a clean shaven, smiling young man who’s chosen an online education through a Mormon institution, instead of a traditional state university or private liberal arts college, “So he can spend more time with family.”) Monday night is the church’s official “family home evening,” and it is the faith’s general anxiety about eternal family togetherness that helps makes Mormons the world’s great genealogists. It is this same notion of families eternally sealed to each other that underlies other uniquely Mormon practices, like baptism by proxy, otherwise colloquially known as baptism for the dead. But as with most cultures, one of the places the family is most likely to be found together is around the bountiful table.
The first time I ever had dinner with my boyfriend Joseph’s Mormon family in Layton, Utah, I got what I understand to be the “platos tipicos” of a Mormon Sunday Dinner. The centerpiece of the meal was “a roast” – this is not quite pot roast, not quite brisket, not exactly roast beef the way I know it from New York. I’m not entirely sure what cut it is, but it’s definitely cow. In keeping with the admirable frugality of Mormon culture, it’s probably the piece of meat that can best serve the largest number of folks for the least or maybe next-to-least cost per capita. Mormon families and functions have an air of jovial socialism about them – everybody cradle-to-grave eats the same food in the same room, so it’s important that everybody likes it, nobody wastes it, and there be enough for at least some hearty souls to go back for seconds, maybe even leave with a Tupperware to-go. And our roast beast didn’t come with “glazes” or “reductions,”which would seem an out-of-place pretension around a table that looks for all the world like the cover of my mom’s old Betty Crocker Cookbook. What does accompany the meat (at almost every meal) is Joseph’s mom, Jane’s famous homemade hot mustard – bright yellow, velvety, spooned out of mason jars, sweet, tangy, and searing hot. This mustard goes right to the third eye and burns it wide open. And that night, Jane also made her much-in-demand homemade rolls, the soft, pillowy, white rolls baked to a golden brown, still slightly floured on their perfect little domes when she pulls them apart into a basket and sets them steaming on the table. There were home-pickled beets on the table, and a neighbor’s blueberry-lavender jam. It was odd to see so much home-made, hand-made treatery alongside canned green beans, but I have since come to understand that canned vegetables on a table or canned soup in the “funeral potatoes” or powdered soup flavoring a dip or casserole is a way of rotating out the three-month to one-year supply of food storage that Mormon families generally keep in a pantry or a basement, just in case. “Of what?” I asked my Joseph. “Of anything,” he said. “Earthquakes, tornadoes, the government turning on its people, the great final war that will preceded the ascension of the righteous to the celestial kingdom. You know.”
There is a full aisle in our local Fresh Market (the grocery store formerly known as Albertson’s) dedicated to “food storage”. Now, growing up in Northern California, we always had bottled water and a milk-crate full of canned refried beans and Progresso soup out in the storage shed, in case of “the big one,” the earthquake that’s eventually going to crack California in half and demolish its always-already threatened state infrastructure. But this Mormon food storage, this is not my father’s clam chowder and camp stoves. These are coffee cans of powdered and dehydrated apocalypse fare – everything from “side-cut celery” to “margarine powder” to “dehydrated vegetarian meat substitute,” the latter of which comes in several startling flavors, including “taco”.
And even an apocalypse should include a little fun. Which explains why my family also keeps some Maker’s Mark and Amaretto down in the emergency stash. In the kinder, gentler Mormon emergency pantry, you might find, say, 37 pounds of powdered chocolate milk beverage – on sale today for 75 dollars and change.
It is, I think, a combination of this deep, shared culture of frugality and a preoccupation with food storage and family preparedness that explains a lot of Mormon food, which I have heard described in many ways (some kindlier than others) but I think I like “bomb shelter cuisine” the best. It conveys the essence of Mormon food as a blast from the past, something impervious to the assaults of cultural evolution (housewives in pearls stirring pretzels and Cool Whip into raspberry Jell-O, or studding a pale baked ham with pineapple rounds and maraschino cherries) and the constant inclusion of whatever might be nearing its expiration date in the food storage pantry, whether canned peach halves or green beans or sweet corn kernels or cream of mushroom soup. And, of course, Jell-O, which belongs to all of these aspects of the culture and its cuisine.
And in fact Jell-O may somehow belong inherently to Mormon cuisine’s history and origin, which seems to remain a bit mysterious even the so-called experts writing Mormon cookbooks and cooking blogs and cultural histories. “Why Jell-O,” everyone seems to muse, but nobody can quite explain. Because it goes a long way at a ward potluck? Because it’s popular with children? I don’t have any surer of an answer than anybody else, but I developed a conjecture during the year I lived in Rome, where I discovered, for the very first time, how useful and delicious aspic can actually be.
Roman food is decidedly not the juicy thick-cut steaks and rich truffled sauces of Florence, nor is it the hearty rice and savory soup of Milan, nor the delicate grilled shellfish and waterfowl ragu of Venice. It’s not the bright lemons and red tomatoes and golf ball-sized green olives of Sicily, and it’s not the almost-French butter-based pastas and thick cheeses of the northern Piedmont region, where the big Barolos come from. Rome is the culinary mercenary of Italy. Animals raised in the rich pasturelands of the south were shipped up the coast and along the Tiber River to the Roman abattoirs of Trastevere, where they were slaughtered and the finest cuts of meat were forwarded along to the wealthy trading and banking and educational centers of the north – Genoa, Florence, Milan, Bologna. The Romans kept whatever was leftover, so Roman food is heavy on the offal. Braised oxtail is probably my favorite of the traditional Roman meat dishes, and also likely the most accessible, with the possible exception of any number of guanciale dishes – guanciale being the preserved cheek of a pig. Hearts, kidneys, and livers feature heavily, as does tripe. And so, of course, do hooves and bones and marrow, though not always in their most obvious forms. Marrow is scraped from the bones and spread like butter, or boiled with bones and hooves for the thick, savory, flavorful reduction that can be mixed with scraps of animal or vegetable or both and cooled into a mold. This may sound suspect, but aspic is a genuinely magical substance. It preserves whatever it encases, keeping meat scraps or vegetables from spoiling. It can be served in any number of ingenious ways at almost any temperature (note the French chaud froid), and it’s rich, filling, and nutritious, something that hasn’t always been easy to come by in Rome’s rocky history. I even have one amazing recipe wherein you fold cubes of cold aspic into dumpling skins, so when you steam the dumplings, the aspic melts. Upon biting into these, you get a savory, soft mouthful of delicious brown broth. At one amazing little place called Osteria Cibreo, I ate a roasted tomato aspic confettied with fresh basil and I doubt I will ever forget it – certainly it keeps evading my attempts at replication.
Given the general usefulness of aspic, especially in the pre-refrigeration age, I’m guessing gelatin might always have been a staple of the culturally and constitutionally resourceful Mormons – pioneers, or perhaps more aptly refugees, homesteaders providing for large families and a growing community of hungry laborers. When it started coming in packets, and then in packets with sugar and food coloring, a gelatin-friendly culture might well have just gotten on board and never looked back.
Tomorrow: a new Utah food culture, the opening credits of Napoleon Dynamite, some relevant poetry by James Galvin, where to get tapas in Boise, and more...
 BBC News Online; 6 February, 2001; Katty Kay (Washington, DC)