Meals and Mormons

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me… Omar Khayyam

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me,
and I will soon be fat, drunk, and in trouble.
Alfred E. Newman [1]

Next week is Fast Sunday in my ward, other Christians are observing Lent, and I’ve been wondering what our religion tells us about the way we should think about food. You might ponder over what you read in the standard works, but my pondering was triggered by reading in a recipe book. I came upon a pasta recipe that called for:

1 pound bacon, fried, drained, and crumbled
1 pint heavy cream
1/2 pound butter

I was scandalized, and didn’t read any further. Imagine, someone cooking a dish that is so grossly unhealthy! A few days later, we were having company over, and I was making a double batch of our beloved funeral potatoes. The irony slowly dawned on me as I mixed in a large bowl:

6 cups sour cream
3/4 pound melted butter
3 cups grated cheddar

Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, the scriptures warn us about being carnal, sensual and devilish, and we are enjoined to maintain our appetites within appropriate boundaries. On the other hand, the promised land was flowing with milk and honey, the righteous are promised that they will eat the fat of the land, and ultimately they will be invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

There appears to be a wide range of opinion among us. For starters, latter-day saints in North America relate to food in a different way than our brothers and sisters in The Phillipines, for example, but that is a topic that deserves its own treatment. We also struggle in interesting ways with eating disorders, for a variety of reasons. But what I find interesting here is that the same ward can contain members we might call bon vivant Mormons and others we might call hair shirt Mormons. Bon vivants call their food cuisine, and they think eating should be a sensual experience. They seek out new foods and interesting restaurants, and think nothing of spending $100.00 and several hours on a meal for two. On the other hand, hair shirt Mormons think a breakfast of boiled wheat or oatmeal, a lunch of bread and milk, and a dinner of boiled root vegetables repeated day after day is the best way to live, and that anything else is an exercise in dangerous excess. Who is right, or does our religion care?

We have a few guidelines from Section 89 about eating fruits in season and eating meat sparingly. Some of us don’t eat meat, but even our vegetarians don’t feel guilty about eating lettuce and strawberries in February. We used to be warned in conference about the dangers of eating spicy foods, on the grounds that they might cause a steep increase in libido (if only that were true!), but it has now been decades since curry and capsicum were pronounced traif.

Since there is no official dogma concerning food, I believe the field is white, already to harvest some uninformed speculation. I will take the position that we do not take food seriously enough. Our expanding waistlines might argue against that position, but I believe our obesity is attributable to our frequent consumption of fast food, which is just another way of saying we don’t take food seriously. We regard mealtime as a necessary evil, a time when we introduce calories and carbohydrates into our alimentary canals, and a time to be kept as short as possible. I believe this is wrong.

As people who 1)talk a lot about family togetherness, and 2)talk a lot about befriending people who do not share our faith, we need to gain some appreciation for the social aspect of enjoying good food. Who can blame teenagers for skipping dinner when they know they will enjoy neither the food nor their parents’ harangues about curfews, report cards and questionable friends? And who can blame our neighbors for not being impressed with our attempts at friendship when that friendship consists of a chat with the missionaries over Ritz crackers and Vienna sausages?

Nothing I am saying here should be understood as a demand for us all to become great cooks, and I especially do not want to cause any extra guilt for those (mostly mothers) who heroically, day after day, manage to put meals on the table for an ungrateful mob. Sometimes the best that can be managed is microwave corn dogs and tater tots, and that is fine, even for several days consecutively. However, I am arguing that culinary skills are in danger of being neglected among us, in a way that talents for, say, music, or public speaking, are not. I am also arguing that the ability to extend hospitality in the form of a good meal is an important skill, necessary to building the kingdom. All have not the same gifts, so let’s appreciate the ones we have. I think we excel in two areas: homemade bread and homemade cinnamon rolls. It has been over a decade now since my wife’s visiting teacher gave us a loaf of cranberry walnut bread, but just the memory of the taste would make a believer out of the most doubtful skeptic.

President Kimball looked forward to the time when we would produce our own Miltons and Shakespeares. I do too, but in the meantime, I’ll be happy to see our own Iron Chefs, Barefoot Contessas, and Emeril LaGasses. Bam!

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[1] Mad Magazine, DC Comics, Volume 48, issue 7, p.36


  1. Hair shirt Mormons! Love it. Never met one.

    I used to think that the post-priesthood session ice cream social was a symbol of Mormon philistia gone mad. I still think it’s crass to finish a spiritual feast with junk food (oh yes, the ice cream is never your bon vivant variety), but I think we’re on the right track. I think Mormon commensality ought to be simple and unalloyed. But we can do better than cheap ice cream.

  2. Mark,
    So I was just thinking about looking at this. I think too often, serious Mormon dialogue about food begins and ends with the WoW, while light dialogue begins with Jell-O and ends with funeral potatoes.

    The WoW doesn’t give us much ethical insight into what we should eat–I see it as more of a covenant people law than a health law (although there are health benefits there). I’m interested in how, as stewards of the Earth, we should choose what to eat, how we should deal with the internalities and externalities of our consumption choices, etc. (I admit, upfront, to fitting comfortably in the bon vivant category of eater.)

    I can’t speak to what we cook well; I’ve only eaten funeral potatoes once, and, frankly, would prefer Steingarten’s potatoes au gratin any day. But I admit to being a food snob. Nonetheless, I’m interested in what our food traditions are and where they come from, although I have to admit to being clueless. I cook differently than my mom (and my wife than her mom). My mom, in turn, cooks differently than her mom. So I don’t feel like I’m the recipient of any tradition, other than my mom’s of cooking homemade and well.

  3. Sam, Here is something that has always puzzled me. Given the tens of thousands of returned missionaries along the Wasatch Front who served overseas, I would expect to see a greater demand for restaurants catering to those tastes.

    I think our cooking is defined by the need to feed large families with few dollars, which is really an admirable task. The downside is that we often go for the cheap and easy. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but we do sometimes deprive ourselves.

  4. cj douglass says:

    Never met any hair shirt mormons either. I was under the assumption that culinary skill was an identifably mormon trait. After all, I served my mission in Utah and never ate a bad meal. Not once. In my own family (all mormons) good recipes are passed from generation to generation. My great-grandmother (still feisty at 96) can still out cook us all. Again, I always assumed these traits and traditions were inherently mormon.

  5. Ronan, I agree re: cheap ice cream. As a general rule, the greater the butterfat content, the higher the quality of the ice cream. Where does our commitment to good health collide with our desire for delicious ice cream?

    Anyway, you wouldn’t need to worry about the post-priesthood meeting ice cream orgy if you were in my ward. This time we are having a chili dinner before the meeting. In an effort to put the canned Hormel offerings to shame, I am bringing a black and white chili, made with chicken broth and black and white beans. Yes, I am a snob, and yes, it is really good.

  6. Emeril LaGasses is nothing but an empty showboater. Then again, when we view popular LDS art, I guess it fits.

  7. Yum, this made me hungry. I’m going to try that pasta recipe. It sounds sort of alfredo-ish.

    There’s a difference between gluttony and a joyous appreciation for good food. You can exult over a perfect strawberry in February and enjoy every bite and not be a glutton. I think God meant us to enjoy food.

  8. I don’t know. I kind see Mark is coming from, but even though I grew up in UT–I think his experience is different than what I experienced. Although there’s a strong bent in “Utah Cuisine” for foods covered in cream of soups–for example-Funeral potatoes–there’s also many, many women and men who cook well and are health conscious.
    I don’t live there now, but if someone in my LDS community where I currently live is a good cook, everyone knows-its one of those skills that are heralded and is shared. I recall the same when I did live in Utah. Both my mother and maternal grandmother are great cooks–and everyone in their communities knows this-not because they are vocal but they share their talents.

  9. It’s been years since I lived in Provo. I imagine the lack of good international restaurants along the Wasatch fron has to do with the fact that 21-year-old return missionaries aren’t really that adventurous, now that they’re back, and what experimentation they’d do is gone. (My wife admits to having eaten a fish eyeball on her mission, but wouldn’t do it now.) Also, I think some discover that they really don’t like what they ate on their mission.

    While I was at BYU, a couple Brazilian churrascarias (barbeques, basically) became very popular. But they fit into a US meat-and-potatoes (minus, of course, the potatoes).

    What makes me really sad, both for Mormons and for everyone else, is that Times Square has an Olive Garden. C’mon, there’s great Italian (if you want Italian) in NY; if price is a consideration, up at 121 and Morningside, there’s a place that’s roughly the same price, only it’s good. (Cash only, of course.)

  10. #5 While the black and white chili dish is one I would love to try I can’t get over the fact that several intelligent adults concluded that a meal including beans was a good idea under the circumstances.

  11. Kim (6),
    He may be an empty showboater (I haven’t eaten at any of his restaurants, although I walked by one in New Orleans), but his cookbook my sister gave me has some great (albeit convoluted) recipes. Especially the white-chocolate-mousse-raspberry pie.

  12. Struwelpeter says:

    I once began to organize a “Battle of the Chefs” ward activity between the three culinary experts in our ward. One was a trained Chinese Gourmand, the other a former chef at a resort in coastal Mexico, and the third owned his own southern barbecue restaurant. Each would prepare a meal, the ward members would partake, awards would be given, and there would be much rejoicing in the land. The problem, as per the Relief Society President, was that each of the chefs were men, and for many of the sisters over whom she presided, it would be a serious blow to their egoes, as the kitchen was the only sphere in which they felt any superiority to the male gender, and this would tell them they were wrong. The activity was axed. There was so much that irked me about that experience, I didn’t even know where to begin.

  13. Struwelpeter, probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that we men often cook only when we feel like it but our wives need to get the meals on the table whether they feel like it or not, so it often feels like drudgery. It does sound like a good activity though.

    I’m surprised that so few of the commenters have met a hair shirt Mormon. Maybe I need to invite you to my next family reunion . . .

    someone, # 10,

    Ah, but since we are good boy scouts, we are well prepared and way ahead of you. Someone has already been assigned to bring the Bean-o.

  14. I think many of us know more hair shirt Mormons than we think because (if I understand correctly) being a hair shirt Mormon doesn’t entail *actually* living the ideal. In fact I think most people who believe boiled roots are the epitome of virtuous eating normally have the worst eating habits- since they are falling short of their ideal they feel they may as well add an extra pat of butter. The people I know who actually do eat boiled roots and steamed sprouts thoroughly enjoy them in a way hairshirters would disapprove of.

  15. Our last ward activity was a chilli cook off.

  16. cj douglass says:

    #4 cont….. On the other hand, me and my wife are openly mocked by certain family members for our “organic” food lifestyle. We buy produce at a local co-op so its not the cost that bothers them. Instead, its the idea that caring that much about what food we eat is somehow indicative of our snobbery and contempt for all things “American”(white bread, Oscar Meyer and high fructose corn syrup)

  17. Years ago, I was out to dinner with a few people from the informal YSA group in the ward. I ordered a diet Coke and one of the more judgmental of the group looked at me like I ordered a syringe of heroin. “You take your coffee cold, brother Phouchg?” he laughed.

    then he ordered the large T-bone cooked with extra butter and a large baked potato with cheese and extra sour cream. I wanted to mention “eating meat sparingly” but I held my tongue.

  18. Culinary skills and dining together opportunities often suffer the fate of too busy schedules. Once the week begins, it’s very difficult to have a sit down dinner with long-time or distance-commutes combined with kids afternoon/evening sports practice/games, church meetings, VT/HT and other professional obligations. It seems the one available day is Sunday after church, again if there are no long post church meetings that postpone the weekly “free at last” feeling.

    If culinary skills and joint dining opportunities decline, will a decline in good manners and social skills be far behind? It seems one is necessary to really enjoy the other. (good manners/social skills while eating with a group of people/friends)

  19. I am also arguing that the ability to extend hospitality in the form of a good meal is an important skill, necessary to building the kingdom.

    I tend to agree with this, however I was raised in a family where meals were a central and familial ritual.

    I’ve met plenty of Mormons that are of the Hair Shirt variety. Herbal supplements, whole grain-only, no sugar, no vaccinations (sorry, had to through that in there), etc.

  20. Hehe- J. Stapley’s ‘no sugar’ reminded me of a hair shirt man I used to know. He frequently bragged about how his family never ate candy, and used little to no sugar in their canning, etc etc. One day he came home from work early to an apparently empty house. After a short search he found his entire family, wife and kids, hiding in the pantry eating a box of Twinkies as fast as they could. He gave up on the ‘no sugar’ crusade after that.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Re #9, there is a great episode of The Office where Michael (the office manager) takes a business trip to New York, and proudly shows off the Italian restaurant he likes to go to whenever he makes it into the City.

    The camera pans to it, and it turns out it’s a Sbarro’s.

    (As part of the same scene, he thinks he sees Tina Fey [false alarm], but while he’s looking at the faux-Tina, Conan O’Brien walks by without Michael even noticing. Very funny stuff.)

  22. I am a firm beleiver in the healing power of a great social experience. Nothing says I care like a well prepared meal. We need to turn off the T.V. and come together in sharing of this important time. In the old days life was centered around food. The men would go hunt all day the women would gather berries and other foods. They would all come together and prepare and share the feast of the day. Then they became farmers. working to get thier food. Today we go to a grocery store and buy pre-made food that just needs to be heated up or worse yet the fast food drive through.

    I think people are scared by food. They are scared of what they don’t know. We used to know our food. We would spend the day building a relationship with it. Now it has been reduced to little or no status. I’m not reccomending an intimite relationship with your eggplant, but just don’t be afraid. Get to know your food. If you are reading this and thinking I wouldn’t know what to say to my food, or I would look silly talking to my pantry please seek help from a professional. :)

    In response to men cooking more… I believe that more frequently men are turning to cooking because of a few intertwined reasons…

    1. Cultural acceptance of male cooks. (Food TV, Iron Chef etc. Traditionally in restaurants it has been men who cook while in the home it was the Wife.)

    2. Women with little or no desire to learn to cook. (Also cultural. It used to be a pre-requisite to marraige not so much any more.)

    3. A man’s got to eat!

    If you are looking for a good recipe to try out to night with scraps from your kitchen check out my post here.

  23. Re 21, I thought of that same scene when I read #9, but couldn’t remember the name of the chain Italian restaurant. That was a very funny episode.

  24. I think there has already been a decline in manners and sociability connected with a decline in fine dining. However, I hardly think that is a Church-centric issue. It’s more of a byproduct of the glorious American way of life.

  25. #3 I went to Italy and spent fully 4/5ths of my meals eating pasta and red or pasta and white as prepared by other missionaries. One missionary’s idea of cooking was to warm up tomato sauce and cook the pasta. Thankfully, by the time I arrived, he was adding spices.

    When I returned home, it was another 9 months before I could eat pasta again.

    Also, consider that any ethnic cuisine in Utah will be spendier than 5 buck pizza/taco bell/…. So when the flavors are fresh in the mind of the RM, the funds usually aren’t available. When the funds are available, the palate has re-acclimated to the overwhelming amounts of sugar/salt that routine American fare provides and the ethnic food isn’t quite as good.

  26. #12,

    In one ward, we had the annual chili cook off. There was a bread/roll/… category and a chili category. All were welcome to participate and it really was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it never made it past the 2nd annual.

    Honestly, I’m surprised that the pros weren’t tired of being asked to provide their services for free.

  27. I wonder if the lack of cooking results from a cultural notion that if you are going to expend any effort on something, then you must be the best. If you aren’t willing to hyper-specialize, then why start. Combining that sense of competition/over-achievement with busy schedules means that most things get squeezed out (including cooking).

    However, if you don’t mind meat, bbq (as opposed to grilling) is a lot of fun. Spending a day watching over a smoker, exulting with everyone over the food that comes out, really is gratifying. Highly recommended. It’s also not hard to get to the point where eating in a restaurant is disappointing because you can cook it better yourself.

  28. #9 Kevin, The Office my favorite show. I missed the first year, but now I record it. Doesn’t it bother you that they show four new shows then rerun them? I would like to go and slap them. But it’s a great show.

    I haven’t eaten yet and it’s 1:37 pm. I made corned beef and cabbage for the first time Saturday and it was to die for. I hope Bill didn’t eat it all.

  29. Sam: “up at 121 and Morningside, there’s a place that’s roughly the same price, only it’s good”

    Yes, that Domino’s across from the projects has the best cinnastix.

  30. re: 15.

    Susan, our EQ has an annual chili cookoff. In fact, all of our EQ activities revolve around food. Our last one was a pizza party where everyone made their own pizzas.

  31. #27 I believe the lack of cooking does stem from a cultural block. many people sense they have to be the best otherwise they will just order out. Cooking is simple, it’s not an exact science. The biggest thing to control if you are not eating raw. Is the flame or heat. It will make or break your cooking. Maybe that’s another reason men like cooking Fire… I knew Boy Scouts was good for something…

    In reality the just need to dive in. Use a combination of spices and seasonings and there is no real reason for tons of iodized salt. Sugar on the hand is rampant in american cuisine. I would reccomend natural sea salt as opposed to iodized.

    In relation to church activities and food I believe they go hand in hand. Spiritual and Physical nourishment are both important and are often overlooked these days.

  32. Sam, Here is something that has always puzzled me. Given the tens of thousands of returned missionaries along the Wasatch Front who served overseas, I would expect to see a greater demand for restaurants catering to those tastes.

    Salt Lake has great variety, I’ve had Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Thai, Moroccan, etc. A date for my wife and I will sometimes consist of nothing more than going through the yellow pages until we find something we’ve never tried, and go there for a meal., The rest of Utah on the other hand…

    I was devastated when I returned from my mission after eating authentic home-cooked Chinese and Vietnamese food. My parents excitedly told me about this great Chinese place that had opened in Bountiful, how it was the greatest Chinese food they’d ever had. We went there one night and I was so disappointed in how awful it was, I thought I’d never have good Chinese again.

  33. jjohnsen (#32)

    I assume you’re familiar with the Little World Cafe in SLC. If not, look it up. Chances are you will be the only American in the place.

  34. jjohnsen says:

    The only American? That’s a good sign.

  35. Steve (29),
    Err 121 and Amsterdam. (Although it, too, is roughly across the streeet from projects.)

  36. Starfoxy, that Twinkies story is hilarious!

    I am related, by blood and marriage, to some hair-shirt Mormon types. They do stay skinny over the decades.

  37. I love this topic. Last year the RS hosted a night for the ward where they invited someone from Slow Food Finland. It was great fun and spawned some interesting discussions about the place of slow food ideology within the gospel. It was largely preaching to the choir — Finnish attitudes about food are traditional and communal — but it’s a good chance to take a look at these ideas.

  38. This reminds me of the time I was in a ward in southern California and this couple gave talks in Sacrament meeting basically saying that McConkie was wrong and the Word of Wisdom and Paul’s epistles had been mistranslated and that we really WERE supposed to be all vegetarians. (I expected the Bishop to get up and correct them, but he didn’t.)

    Next time I saw them I was in a Ralph’s supermarket. Holding two pounds of ground beef.

    Good times . . .


  39. OK, two things:

    1. Cucina Toscana in SLC is the best Italian restaurant ANYWHERE. Yes, I’ve been to New York, SF, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas and LA. Just try it before you doubt me.

    2. I became violently ill after our last chili cookoff in our ward. Please, no more…

  40. Like this one.

    The article is Thanks Mom for cooking dinner.