Friday, November 16, 2012

The Strange Cuisine of Utah

Living in Virginia, we've had a great time explaining to the locals the strange and anti-exotic foods common to Utah tables.  Not restaurant tables--no, those are the usual national chains with the usual national foods (mostly--small greasy spoons are another matter) .  No, I'm talking about the foods you find in homes.  At picnics.  After memorial services. 

Real Utah foods.

The food guaranteed to elicit an "Ew, no WAY!" response?  Bologna strips in lime Jello.  Yes.  I'm sorry, YES.  I've seen it, I've eaten it.  Yes, it is horrifying. 

Utahns will put any and all manner of things in their Jell-o, but bologna strips is the one that really does it for me.  It woogles my gut and curls my upper lip.  I've heard tell of HOT DOG CHUNKS IN JELLO, but I've never seen it, so I can't be positive it exists.  Might be the unicorn of Mormon food, you know?

In addition to bologna, Utahns have been known to add veggies, fruit, and even cheese to their Jello. 

Welcome to Utah.  I'd post a picture, but apparently no one has dared photograph this beast.  As a public service, I've drawn a picture. 

Lime Jello with Bologna

Other Utah delicacies?

Ever have lasagna made with American cheese and ketchup?  My husband has---his ex-mother-in-law made a mean American Cheese Lasagna.  In fact, when he and I were first getting together, I said I was going to make him a vat of lasagna.  He squirmed and tried to beg off, finally asking me what COLOR cheese my recipe called for.  It was the oddest question he had ever asked (at that point).  I told him I'd be using mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, and Romano.  Maybe a little asiago.  He breathed a sigh of relief and told me about the American Cheese Lasagna. 

I swear, he looked positively haunted.

Not the "real" thing, just a representation

Until quite recently, I had never had "Funeral Potatoes."  Seriously!  It's a potato (preferably red potato), cream of chicken, butter, cheddar cheese, sour cream, onion, and corn flake crumb concoction (some use french-fried onions in place of the cornflakes) that's actually pretty good, though the name is absolutely appropriate--this stuff will clog your arteries and stop your heart.  Yes, we've actually made them at home.  Yes, I gained four pounds just smelling them. 

Funeral Potatoes

Another funeral and Relief Society picnic favorite?  Frog Eye Salad.  No, hang onto your lunch, it's not REALLY frog's eyes.  Though if it were, I wouldn't be struck by the weirdness, but rather by the exoticness.  Real frog's eyes would just be too fancy for Utah.  Frog Eye Salad is a blend of the diminutive acini de pepe (also known as "pastina") pasta, pineapple chunks in juice, milk, instant vanilla pudding, crushed pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, mini marshmallows, sugar, flour, cream cheese, and frozen Cool-Whip or other frozen whipped topping.  The small, round bits of pasta are, of course, supposed to resemble frog's eyes. 

Frog Eye Salad
Utahns, by and large, make some of the most bland, beige, overly-sweet foods imaginable.  I remember the first time I had spaghetti at a friend's house.  I was horrified--the sauce was one small step away from the sweetness of Spaghettios.  There was no bite, no hint of herbs.  They'd used a can of Ragu, so I couldn't understand how it could be so sweet, so I asked.  They added SUGAR and KETCHUP to doctor it up.  My family used to doctor Ragu, too--we added oregano, basil, rosemary, stewed tomatoes, and red wine.  The first time hubby had dinner at his ex-in-laws', he asked for pepper for the wowserly overdone (another Utah thing) chunk of meat he was supposed to be choking down.  They asked him to repeat himself, as if he'd spoken a foreign language.  He repeated his request for pepper, and his then-mother-in-law cocked her head and asked, "Um--why?"

The top of the pepper shaker was thick with dust.  So was the pepper.

Hubby's ex was horrified to learn that the red sauce that goes over pasta has tomatoes in it.  In fact, when hubby made fresh pasta sauce, she painstakingly removed every bit of identifiable tomato.  And when faced with parsley potatoes that weren't mashed?  She was struck tharn.  Had no idea what to do with them.  Nearly cried when told she was supposed to just EAT them.  Hubby finally had to walk over, mash them with a fork FOR HER, and then put butter on them.  Even then, you'd think she was being killed with every bite.

No, she's not an unusual case.  I'm not saying that all Utahns are like this.  Absolutely, some are not.  Many grew up this way, and then discovered real food.  It's  been argued that it's a throwback to Utah's pioneer roots, that foods are hearty, fatty, and simple because they rise from that pioneer sensibility.  Maybe so.  But let me tell you, going into a small, locally owned greasy-spoon diner and ordering anything even vaguely foreign?  Always an adventure in plaid--those folks can de-ethnicize any food.  They can blandify Tex-Mex, they can Beef-a-Roni fine Italian, and they can SPAMATE traditional Greek meats.  It's a pure-D miracle to behold.

Another Utah foodism that has actually spread and taken hold in other states?  Fry sauce!  A little chain (which is a little bigger now) called Arctic Circle claims the honor of having invented fry sauce.  It's a "proprietary blend," but most folks say tossing together the usual susects will get you close, though you'll have to experiment with the fiddly bits . . . or just order it from Arctic Circle!  Ordering information is on their site!  It's quite tasty, a bit tangy (think almost Thousand Island-y), and goes great on fries, especially Arctic Circle fries.  If you're ever in Utah (or Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington), absolutely grab a Black Angus Mushroom and Swiss, an order of fries with fry sauce, and chase it with a Lime Rickey. 

Arctic Circle Fry Sauce

Speaking of Utah burger joints, there's a place up in Brigham City called "Peach City."  Some folks love it, others don't, but it was the first place I ever had a peach milk shake.  If you have never had a peach milk shake, you have absolutely missed out!  Peach City has a good burger, decent fries, but it's those shakes that really make the place. 

One thing I really, REALLY miss about Utah and it's amazingly wonky foods?  I miss me some Farr's Ice Cream--Black Licorice, Pistachio, Fudge Brownie, Bordeaux Cherry Chocolate Chip, Mocha, Tin Roof Sundae, and a couple dozen more, in cups, cones, plastic baseball caps, splits, or sundaes.  The place is, of course, closed Sundays, but it's open pretty late on Fridays and Saturdays, and attracts a marvelously big crowd.  It's worth it--in a rare example of truth in advertising, it really is "Farr Better Ice Cream." 

Still open at the same Ogden Location after all these years!

Well, hell.  This started as a "look at how funny Utah food is" and ended leaving me really craving some Utah eats!  Go figure!

Oh, hey--if you've got any standout Utah food examples (oddball recipes, freaky offerings), let me know in comments! 


  1. Well written and funny post. My mother always put grated carrots in orange jello for special occasions. We were in Wisconsin. I think she got it from a magazine.

  2. I think I missed a lot of these by not hanging out with Mormons too much. I haven't ever seen bologna in jello, thank the sciences! I don't like jello but the salads with jello, cottage cheese and fruit are at least edible, and not too weird. I'm used to seeing bologna fried, and once I saw thick slices in bbq sauce as a special at a cafeteria in Oklahoma. I first encountered funeral potatoes after a relative died and the neighbors brought over a trough of them. I ate them for days, they were delicious. Ragu? Too sweet for me even after doctoring it up. I grew up with a mom from the South. We always had too much butter on our veggies, a lot of hamburger based dinners from which she never drains the excess grease, and a lot of things fried in bacon fat, but she doesn't shy away from spices, even if it's just a little garlic and onion powder. She is guilty of overcooking meat. She believes that the rarer it is, the tougher it will be. It might be because she never buys anything but the cheapest meats, I can't get her to even taste a nice med/rare ribeye so she doesn't know any better.
    I love fry sauce, and Farr's ice cream is actually pretty good quality. Peach City was a favorite when I was in Brigham City.
    My Mormon roommate introduced me to canned green beans with butter and grated cheddar cheese melted in. Her mom used to serve "chicken malibu" aka a processed breaded chicken patty with a slice of processed swiss and lunchmeat ham on top. Also, mashed potatoes with a lot of cheddar cheese in them. I think cheese is to Mormons what herbs and spices are to Italian or Greek cuisine. That scene in Napoleon Dynamite when his brother is making microwave nachos and grating a 5 lb block of cheese is what made me realize that the characters in the movie were LDS. Another friend tried to convince me that lasagna with cottage cheese and plain tomato sauce was really good but I wouldn't taste it to find out. I make it with mozzarella, parmigiana and ricotta, but it's "weird" because I layer spinach and sometimes squash too!
    What about the Ham Dandy? Ham, cheese, a ton of mayo and a handful of finely shredded lettuce on a bun. It doesn't sound that weird to me but I've seen it listed as a Utah food, do they eat them elsewhere? You've got me thinking so I might list more Utah foods later.

  3. Oh! Hot cocoa is not a Utah food, but Stephens hot cocoa is made here, and it's pretty darn good. Stephens makes fry sauce in a bottle too and I like it, but I've been trying to eat less taters so I haven't bought any in a while. :D

  4. Thank you, Merikay! Carrots is one I've seen before!

  5. Oh, yeah, Stephens! The plant is right near Lagoon! We've had a lot of Stephens in our time! The Greenbeans and butter with cheese reminds me of the cheap, powdered mac-a-chee mix with cream of mushroom, green beans, and tuna fish added. Put it in the oven with some cheese and corn flake crumbs on top and it's a "casserole." Definitely post more!

  6. Oh, gosh, I just realized! "Chicken Malibu?" Malibu Chicken from Sizzler! Love, love, LOVE that! Dipped in a mayo and mustard blend!