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.
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 as “cheeky,” 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.
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).
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.