Illustration: isel Ashlock
I HAD NEVER heard of funeral potatoes before a chilly evening last year, when I sat down to dinner on the patio of Hell’s Backbone Grill. This idyllic farm-restaurant sits at the threshold of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in the tiny town of Boulder, Utah. No one had died. But as Jennifer Castle, the restaurant’s co-owner and chef, served up tender half-moons of potato napped in cream and melted cheese, tears sprang to my eyes nevertheless.
In the cold, clear night, under a starry sky, we talked about the ways communities come together to observe rites of passage in this part of the country. Inevitably, there is a buffet.
Like many Americans, I grew up with death shunted to the shadows. And like many American Jews of my vintage, I’d always associated funerals with stale Entenmann’s crumb cake and synagogue coffee so bad it seemed more of an unrealized carpet stain than a beverage.
In Boulder they do things a little differently. Only 250 people live in this town sewn like a cross-stitch into the billowing rock formations of south-central Utah. There’s Hell’s Backbone Grill; a gas station and store called Hills & Hollows Market; a motel; a gift shop; and not much else. When someone there dies, the whole town hears about it. When someone is born or gets married or moves away or sneezes, Boulderites know. And more often than not—when the moment is deemed sufficiently momentous—someone makes a hot casserole dish of funeral potatoes.
There are so many things one can do with potatoes, but in conjunction with cheese, cream and heat, the comfort factor goes through the roof. Little wonder, then, that funeral potatoes are considered crucial consolation and hold pride of place among Utah’s most iconic dishes, rivaled only by green Jell-O salad.
Boulder’s town clerk, post office keeper and purveyor of fishing and hunting licenses, 72-year-old Judi Davis, told me the roots of the dish can be traced in the pages of Mormon Relief Society Cookbooks. Some of the greatest available repositories of American folk recipes, these self-published books have appeared regularly since the early 20th century, throughout the so-called Mormon Corridor running from Utah into Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and California. Collections of family recipes, they’re put together by members of the Relief Society, the all-female auxiliary of the Church of Latter Day Saints founded 175 years ago. Among the group’s many duties—in addition to teaching food preservation and essential crafts such as quilting—providing sustenance at funerals ranks high.
Along with baked ham, homemade biscuits and salad with Ranch dressing, funeral potatoes remain a comfort to be counted on at funeral receptions in Utah and the rest of the Mormon Corridor. A creamy potato casserole of the same name appears at wakes and funerals in parts of the American South, as well—though whether brought there by Mormons or a parallel invention, no culinary historian has yet determined, as far as I can tell.
A topping of crunchy cornflakes and a base of pre-cooked frozen hash browns are widely but not universally considered defining features. “I don’t use them,” said Ms. Davis, “but I know people who do.”
Like ballads, legends and dirty jokes, folk recipes often vary in their details from place to place and even family to family. Each ward, or local Mormon congregation, publishes its own cookbook, reflecting the many ways funeral potatoes have been adapted to the landscape and lifestyle of individual communities across space and time.
Ms. Davis’s recipe comes from the pages of an old Relief Society cookbook sent to her by her husband’s mother in Carbon County, Utah’s coal-mining region. It calls for sliced fresh potatoes and sour cream, as well as canned cream of chicken soup, which helps bind the casserole and adds another layer of richness and savory flavor.
Keri Venuti, meanwhile—the manager of Boulder’s gas station and a cook of local repute—opts for the aforementioned hashbrowns and crowns her casserole with a crust of butter-drenched cornflakes that bakes to a golden crisp. Ms. Venuti said she prepares her funeral potatoes not just for funerals but also for birthdays, weddings and potlucks; I took this as permission to add them to my own Thanksgiving menu this year. The hash browns and cornflakes are convenient means of enhancing both the flavor and the texture. “A lot of Mormons have large families, so we’re looking for ways to save time and money,” she said.
At Hell’s Backbone Grill, Ms. Castle told me that there, on the edge of the wilderness, deaths bring the community together. “Living in Boulder, we get invited to a lot of functions, and this is our version,” she said as she spooned another helping onto my plate. Her recipe is a bit more ambitious than some. Roasted green chiles, a nod to her New Mexico upbringing, provide a warming, smoky bass note. And she includes both russet potatoes, for their starchy fluffiness, and Yukon Golds, because they act as a delicious binder. Garlic replaces the more typical onion, and heavy cream stands in for sour cream. The potatoes are shingled prettily, and a generous topping of melted Gruyère cheese lends a satisfying umami element.
Ms. Castle recalled attending a local man’s funeral recently. “There were 50 people and 10 different trays of funeral potatoes,” she said. Eating the potatoes she’d piled on my plate, luscious and steaming under their crisp Gruyère crust, it was hard to imagine a rendition better than this one. But then, in Boulder, one doesn’t have to choose. Each cook has something singular to contribute—a taste of the infinite in a 9-by-13 casserole dish.
Keri Venuti’s Funeral Potatoes
TOTAL TIME: 1 hour SERVES: 6-8
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set out hash browns until thawed slightly.
2. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons butter. (Alternatively, melt remaining butter in a heatproof bowl in microwave). In a medium bowl, combine melted butter with cornflakes.
4. In a large bowl, combine sour cream, remaining butter and cream of chicken soup. Add salt, onions, grated cheese and hash browns, and stir to combine. Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
5. Top casserole with corn flake mixture. Bake until crisp on top, 45-55 minutes.
—Adapted from Keri Venuti, Boulder, Utah
Hell’s Backbone Grill Green Chile Funeral Potatoes
Active Time: 15 minutes Total Time: 1 ½ hours Serves: 6-8
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rub a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with butter and garlic clove.
2. In a small saucepan, gently warm cream over medium heat. Remove from heat. Shingle a third of the potatoes, alternating between Yukon Gold and russet pieces, on the bottom of the prepared pan. Top with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, ⅓ cup chiles and ⅔ cup warmed cream. Repeat with another third of the potatoes, salt, pepper, chiles and cream. Shingle remaining potatoes, remaining chiles and top with remaining cream. Top layer of potatoes should be poking through the cream so they can crisp in oven. Sprinkle remaining salt and ground black pepper over top.
3. Cover baking dish with foil and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 30 minutes. Carefully remove foil and sprinkle cheese evenly over casserole. Continue baking until cheese is melted and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
—Adapted from “This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming From the Edge of Wilderness” (December 2017) by Jennifer Castle and Blake Spalding, Hell’s Backbone Grill, Boulder, Utah
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