The Makings Of A Bad Mormon Dessert


Photo: YiowMade/Flickr

Last month I attended a food event with a pretty unusual theme. It was an author reading (fair enough) and held at a private home in Belmont. But it was billed as a “Bad Mormon Desserts” party.

A what?

In truth, I was not as interested in the author/book as I was in learning just what constitutes a “Mormon” dessert, let alone a “bad” one. (My preoccupation with the food quickly shifted once I met the featured author, Joanna Brooks — a powerhouse of a personality despite her small stature —  and heard her read excerpts from her superbly written Book Of Mormon Girl, which Brooks herself described ascheeky,” both in title and content. But I digress here; back to the desserts.)

As I intuited, the ‘dig’ at their own culinary traditions by this local gathering of Mormons was wholly tongue-in-cheek — a self-deprecating joke amongst insiders. You know, that kind of good-natured tease that’s at once affectionate and respectful in tone.

Come to find out, there are actually two kinds of “bad” Mormon desserts. Both kinds, at this party, were delicious.

As we guests milled around the dining room of our gracious hosts Paul and Kimberly Carlile, I actually had to be coaxed to try the first kind of “bad” dessert. It’s a classic in the Mormon community because of “the layer thing going on,” comprised of suspended fruit, a crushed crust and the ample use of ingredients with “a long shelf life.” We’re talking Jello, Cool Whip, cream cheese, butter, sugar (had enough?), chopped berries and the coup d’etat: pretzels.

This compilation, I learned, would widely be considered “salad” at a Mormon gathering, taking the place of a bowl of leafy seasoned greens. But there it was, vying for the category of dessert. Everyone seemed to recognize it and like it (let me tell you, it was GONE by the end of the evening). I had a flashback to my Aunt Gladys’ green, chunky Jello mold trotted out each Easter when I was a kid; I shuddered. The Jello square currently wobbling on my plate was the last thing I’d go for on a dessert buffet. I took a deep breath, dug in my fork and tasted. It was awesome — pleasingly sweet with a salty crunch (recipe below).

“Why would you think to put all this together?” I wondered aloud. The anecdotal answers were fascinating. So is the religious history.

There is a distinct tradition of food storage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as the LDS, or Mormon, Church). The deliberate storing of food stuffs — grains (primarily wheat), legumes and canned fruits and vegetables — is a practical outgrowth of both the pioneer culture of early Mormon congregations and the teachings handed down by Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the LDS Church. Circa 1833 Smith dictated numerous lectures he received as revelations; these lectures, or covenants, form part of the Mormon text called the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C).

Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, known as the Word of Wisdom, treats certain behaviors Smith wished for his followers to engage in, or not. The latter arguably most well known to the American public are Smith’s prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco and “hot drinks” (D&C 89: 1-9). Mormons therefore do not drink or smoke, and many will not take coffee or tea.

Less well known, perhaps, is the manner of eating Smith encouraged for his followers. This is also laid out in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is why the Word of Wisdom is considered by Mormons as their law of health — a health code, as it were, but with deliberate spiritual underpinnings. In it, Smith advocated the consumption of grains, herbs and fruits in season, and meat “sparingly” (D&C 89: 10-17). In addition, Section 109 of the same text calls upon Mormons to live providently (“prepare every needful thing“) — which the LDS Church interprets as physical, spiritual and (nowadays) financial preparedness. Practically speaking, this includes the storage of food.

To be clear, the manner of eating (oracle-like for today’s flexitarians!) commanded by Smith is abundantly logical for any people settling in the mid-West and Western territories of 19th-century America. In other words, followers of the newly established Mormon Church would not have been alone in relying predominantly on themselves to cultivate the grain and produce they needed to survive, eating meat on occasion. But Mormons were actually instructed to be self-sufficient  — this, to be best prepared for the tumultuous spiritual times into which (so they believed) their church was born and, presumably, because their faith and very lives were coming under fire.

Fear of starvation is built into a Mormon’s religious DNA
– Jen, a guest

So, how do desserts fit into all this? Before, say, 1950, the food items stored by a Mormon family looked rather different from what would have been stored after that time. The two kinds of “bad” Mormon desserts I encountered at the author-reading in Belmont reflect the shift.

One anecdotal account of LDS culinary history came from a guest named Laurel Ulrich, a professor of History at Harvard, who grew up in Idaho during the 1940s and ’50s. Her childhood experiences with food are more or less typical of that place and age. The rural Mormon culture of the Rocky Mountain West meant that food was predominantly, if not exclusively, homemade. Family gardens were large in size and huge in importance. The vegetables and potatoes pulled from those gardens not only fed the family, but also went into the family’s store of food, where grains were also prominent. Canning was a seminal activity for Mormon families, especially those living in what is now Utah, when that region (and, in particular, the Utah Valley, where Brigham Young University is located) was laden with cherry, apricot, nectarine, peach, pear and apple orchards. Nature’s abundance and man’s hard work meant that Mormon women excelled at baking — fruit pies, cobblers, fritters, cakes, donuts, etc. Apparently, they still do, according to many of the guests I met at the Carlile’s (though in Laurel’s home, it is her husband who grinds wheat with an electric grinder and kneads the couple’s homemade breads; one of their sons is the primary cook in his own family).

We share [baking] recipes. There’s no withholding ingredients, no secrets…we’re communal
– Jen

I asked a small circle of women with whom I was chatting whether they, too, can. None did. One guest, Jen, observed that canning is a tradition she feels was lost with her 40-something generation of LDS women. The spread of Mormon congregations to urban settings has something to do with this, of course. But so, too, I later realized, does the general trend of the American diet around 1950. The societal demands of World War II placed America on many different paths of frenzied innovation — leading, for one, to the large-scale industrialization of our food supply, the effects of which we are grappling with still (think: “Big Ag;” scant federal dollars and private lands reserved for fruits and vegetables, called “specialty crops;” the American obesity epidemic ravaging even our teens, etc.).

The processed, pre-packaged foods we Americans, in general, began consuming en masse last century is mirrored in LDS food storage practices and, therefore, their culinary traditions.

In the dessert category, instead of homemade chocolate cakes and fruit pies made with home-canned goods and stored grains, the “Gelatin Dessert with Pretzel Crust” I tried at the Carlile’s and so-called “Mormon Poke Cake” (vanilla cake poked with holes after baking, filled in with Jello and covered with Cool Whip, which I did not try) entered the dessert repertoire. Their easily-stored ingredients — cake mix, jello, canned fruit, with ready-made Cool Whip on top– made them a logical choice for Mormon moms increasingly living in urban, not rural, environments and managing large families, a budget, maybe a job outside the home and the standard calls for dishes that will feed a large group at church events, funeral receptions and the like (sound familiar?).

So, back to the party. If the first kind of “bad” Mormon dessert is one that draws from the family’s store of food using post 1950s American staples such as Jello, white sugar and, say, Del Monte canned fruit, what’s the second kind? The historian, Laurel, had brought one of these. It was a berry pie from Petsi Pies in Somerville. Irresistible looking. Delicious. I was confused.

“Well,” she explained, “a truly bad Mormon dessert is one that isn’t homemade!”

Watch Joanna Brooks present two of the desserts made for the evening. The winner of the best “Bad Mormon Dessert” that night was the Oreo Layer Dessert, pictured below. Yes, it’s got the layer thing going on. (The quality of the video is poor, but you’ll get the idea.)


Gelatin Dessert with Pretzel Crust
(From the kitchen of Kimberly Carlile)

2 c. pretzels, crushed and lumpy
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 stick butter
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. sugar
8 oz Cool Whip, thawed
1 pkg. (6 oz) strawberry or raspberry gelatin
2 c. boiling water or pineapple juice
1 or 2 pkgs (10 oz each) frozen strawberries or raspberries

Combine the pretzels, sugar and butter and press into the bottom of a baking dish (9×13 inch). Bake at 350 for 6 minutes. Cool. Beat the cheese and sugar til the sugar is dissolved. Add Cool Whip and beat well. Spread over the cooled crust. Stir together gelatin, boiling water, and frozen berries until gelatin is completely dissolved, and let cool slightly by refrigerating 30-45 minutes till slightly thickened but not gelled. Pour over the cheese mixture and chill till set. Makes a dozen 13-inch squares.

19 thoughts on “The Makings Of A Bad Mormon Dessert

  1. Clara

    Great article, just one small correction. Coffee and tea are also against the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89), which means no Mormons are drinking coffee or tea (at least they aren’t supposed to be). Herbal tea is fine, but none of the black, white, green or whatever teas. If it comes from the tea plant, it’s not OK.

  2. judith hansen

    i would like to know from where clara derives the “tea plant” doctrine.

  3. Sylvia

    Loved this. I have been the “victim” of food snobs who look at disdain at such recipes as you describe, but there’s a good reason for them. Thanks for pointing it out. I have to admit, I’m not sure where the idea that jello desserts are salads came from, but it is slowly changing. As to canning, (I’m 47) my mom canned everything. I didn’t know you could BUY pickles until I went to college. I started canning as a newlywed and, though I can much less than I used to, I still can tomatoes and apples. I would can salsa if I thought I could ever make enough to last one year ;-)
    Thanks for an interesting article!

  4. chris

    judith –

    While not being “authoritative” the following does explain the rational.

    “The Word of Wisdom counsels against drinking “hot drinks,” which have been identified by early Church leaders as coffee and tea. “Tea” refers to the standard tea derived from the tea plant, sometimes called black tea or green tea. The Word of Wisdom has not been interpreted as proscribing herbal teas, stating that “all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man (D&C 89:10)” (Victor L. Ludlow, Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel, p.434).

  5. Mtn Woman

    This is horrible and terrible for your blood sugar and waist line, should that matter to others.
    A CUP of SUGAR, 1and half sticks of BUTTER and SOUR CREAM is enough to kill people. Okay, you can kill yourself but I will never sample such foods. No thanks.

  6. Clara

    Judith, what Chris said.

    I know that in all the years I’ve been in the church, people have gotten confused with herbal “teas” and real tea. I actually heard one of the 12 apostles describe it that way some years ago. And no, I don’t remember which one or when. I’ve slept since then.

    But, the information Chris posted is the same thing.

  7. Alyssa Staheli

    I too have been the victim of “bad mormon desserts”, since I have spent most of my life living in Utah. But I’ve gotta say the pretzel dessert salad is fantastic, one of my favorites. I’ve never canned food before, but my mom canned strawberry jam when I was little. It was so yummy too! I wish I had some right now….

  8. Rick

    In a lifetime of being Mormon, having extensive Mormon family ties, and even living a couple decades in Utah, I can say that I have only rarely seen the “layer thing” or other caricatured versions of “mormon cuisine”. The older generation of LDS ladies are probably better cooks than average and more homemade-prone than average because of big families and small budgets, but beyond that I don’t think “Mormon” food is really different from american food. I suppose it’s fun for some to make a strange dish and label it Mormon, but I don’t think there really is a unique ‘Mormon’ type of food, and the vast majority of Mormons I’ve encountered don’t have any special proclivity for jello.

    I’d also guess that less than half of active LDS are serious to any degree about having and using stored food. It’s certainly recommended, and I think it’s smart, but most families I know have little or none, maybe some old buckets of wheat that they’ll never in their life open or use. It would be interesting if someone did a study, but my own experience has been that the type of food-storage potluck hyper-creative jello-obsessed hinted at in this piece are a tiny sliver of the LDS population, and that it’s therefore somewhat less than honest to label their food as “Mormon”. My two cents.

  9. Pingback: 3 Sisters Cooking Italian: Cream Filled Cupcakes for Easter Dessert | Easter Eggs HQ

  10. Cantabrigian

    Though I am not Mormon (I was raised Lutheran) I have an almost identical recipe from my Grandmother for “Strawberry Pretzel Dessert,” which relies on pretzels, cool whip, jello, and frozen strawberries. I pulled it out to compare. The differences between the recipes is that my Grandmother’s uses less sugar, less butter, and specifies “Philadelphia” cream cheese, strawberry jello and frozen strawberries. I have never made it as an adult, but I have a very clear memory of the flavors. I loved it! I wouldn’t be surprised if this recipe came from a box of Philadelphia cream cheese, though I don’t know the origin. I suspect that this kind of recipe was widely distributed (they still print this sort of thing on cream cheese boxes!). Maybe it appealed to Mormons in particular because it is a portable dessert that can be made ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve, and it feeds a crowd, which would make it ideal for church and family gatherings. Even now, my stepmother always keeps in her pantry the shelf-stable ingredients for her standby funeral-lunch casserole, so that she can throw it together at a moment’s notice.

  11. Bruce Young

    Fascinating article! I lived in the Boston area (actually Cambridge and Somerville) for 7 years and know a couple of people mentioned in the article. I recognize the “bad” desserts you describe–though they are not universal or dominant. In other words, there are lots of great desserts at our various gatherings, and the ones you describe are not always among them. (I go for anything chocolate and usually find plenty to choose from, including brownies of various kinds–and I have to sample each kind.) I have to admit, though, that we overdo it with the sugar. On the other hand, many Mormons are serious–most of the time–about aiming at a healthy style of eating and living. One more thing, for which I hope my wife forgives me (that would be celebrated author and documentary maker Margaret Blair Young–look her up): yes, the OTHER kind of bad Mormon dessert is store bought–a plate of cookies or brownies from Costco or a grocery store. My wife usually ends up bringing that sort of thing because, by the time the social is to take place, somehow time for baking has evaporated. I make some nice desserts myself, but I rarely carve out the time needed to make one for a church event. Our favorite Mormon event food, by the way, is what we call funeral potatoes: a delicious combination of shredded or cubed potatoes, cheese, and other ingredients.

  12. Barbara Achenbach

    Mt. Woman says too much sugar and fat. What does she think is in the ingredients when she buys cakes and cookies at the store? Homemade is always better

  13. DeeAnn

    I loved this article! IMHO and experience it was pretty fair and well written. Growing up Mormon in the northwest this is totally the sort of thing we eat at church gatherings. I’ve had both the pretzel and poke cake concoctions in the last year at our church socials. Are we any different then any other church’s picnics, hotdish, and potlucks? I don’t know, but it’s a heritage I gladly claim!!!
    I’d like to point out that another reason why not many people home-can anymore is that, unless you have plenty of home grown produce, it’s hardly worth the time and money it takes to do it at home. We may complain about the costs of things, but in the U.S. we’re very blessed by how available and affordable food is(another reason our waistlines are growing). Still, it’s a skill that’s good to know–I don’t do it very often but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing your bottles all lined up on the counter filled with the fruits of your labor.
    As for the tea thing, let’s just say that Mormons generally avoid things that are addictive. Many choose not to drink caffeinated pop, too. The belief is that if you become addicted to something you’ve given up your free agency or your right to choose, which is one of the greatest gifts that our Heavenly Father has given us. :~)

  14. Kmo98

    Charming article. My problem with this article is small, however it is the same issue I take with most things connected to Joanna Brooks. The Word of Wisdom, being part of the Doctrine and Covenants, we beleive to be prophecy. We do not believe that it is a manual on how Joseph Smith thought things should be, but Divine words through a living prophet. I ask no one to agree with this. I simply ask that when an article is written that there is respect for our beliefs.

  15. Rita

    The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is the plant used to make traditional black and green teas. It is the one referred to by apostles when they specify “tea”. Lots of other plants are used to make “herbal tea”, which the French call “tisanes”, to differentiate between them and regular tea. Yerba mate is a plant used to make tea in South America, and it has a fairly high caffeine level, so I don’t drink it.
    I am a longtime convert, and have lived my entire life outside of Utah. In my ward here in Michigan, many women make their own desserts for ward functions (a couple of them are professional chefs), and I can’t ever remember getting Jell-o for dessert. I’ve had gateaux, a chocolate fountain with fresh fruit, tortes, and many other fabulous sweets. Even our Utah “transplants” (we’re near a university) don’t serve up what has been described in the article. I guess I’ve never had a “bad Mormon dessert”, or even a bad dessert period!

  16. Penguinlady

    In the book I’m reading, by a lifelong LDS person, other explanations are given.

    1. The coffee-tea restrictions isn’t about addiction but about stimulants. It’s more about the caffeine, (present to a greater extent in tea, pound for pound, than in coffee,) as a stimulant than as an addictive.

    2. The “putting food by” or canning tradition came about as a result of the church teachings that after the Apocalypse, when all the non-LDS people had been swept off the earth while the LDS were lifted above the disaster, the ground wouldn’t be arable for a while. So it would be necessary to have food stored to get the survivors through the non-ag times, until the land could be made productive again. Nothing, however, is said about how canned food would survive the disaster…

    I’m not Mormon, just curious, so I have no opinion one way or the other. I just thought that it would be interesting to present alternative viewpoints and interpretations.

  17. Craig

    I was a Mormon for most of my life. Food storage has a lot to do with emergency preparedness, which is a big deal in the church. The culinary habits probably came largely as you surmise. Note also that sugar was the cash crop that saved the early Utah economy. Funny, but I never was served this pretzel dish.

    While I was still a member I was in Salt Lake City with a nonmember co-worker to attend a computer conference. He asked about all the references to sugar in the place names, and even the beehives in the architecture. (The latter are supposed to represent industry but, hey, Vernal honey is among the best.) His observation was, “It appears that sugar is the only physical vice left to the Mormons, and that they have embraced it wholeheartedly.”

  18. Jeff

    Dear Penguinlady: Thanks for the respectful tone of your question. It sounds like the author of the book you’re reading is passing along some, uh, interesting information. I’ve been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my entire life, and I have never heard that idea–that is, that the earth won’t support crops around the time of Jesus’ return–taught as doctrine. (And I’d like to consider myself a fairly knowledgeable member of the faith; I don’t know every last thing that Brigham Young uttered, but I have a pretty good knowledge-base.)

    Additionally, there will be plenty of non-LDS people left on the earth to see the Savior when He comes again.

    Storing food, then, is simply a matter of being prepared for emergencies.

    About the caffeine issue: The Word of Wisdom (the scripture, referenced in the article, which instructs us not to drink coffee and tea) doesn’t specifically say why we shouldn’t consume alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea (aside from saying that our health will benefit thereby). The revelation doesn’t mention anything about addiction or stimulants. Many people speculate about why we shouldn’t drink tea or coffee, but it’s just that–speculation.