A Consideration for Funeral Potatoes
Often, on Easter or Christmas at my house while growing up, my Mom would serve one of the staples of “Mormon culture.” This common dish brings fond memories and comfort for me and many who grew up in the intermountain west and beyond.
This dish is commonly called “Funeral Potatoes” because they are frequently served at funerals, especially when held at an LDS church building. This is not common, but I have encountered people who shy away or even cringed at the dish’s most common moniker. Some even go so far as to call them “Party Potatoes.” Luckily, this designation has not become popular.
Funeral Potatoes are a dish like no other. They are the epitome of comfort food and a beloved tradition. While the name may bring about dark thoughts about death and loss, this couldn’t be further from reality. Funeral potatoes were actually created to help grieving families get through their time of sorrow with an amazing meal that they could enjoy together.
I have heard or participated in several debates about why one would use “Funeral” or “Party” to describe this beloved Utah culinary favorite. An official pin for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, displays this beloved dish. However, there is a slightly ambiguous history behind it. The genesis of this cheesy comfort food is lost, but many food historians agree that members of the Relief Society invented them.
The Relief Society is a women’s organization within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was founded on March 17th, 1842, and has evolved into one of the largest and oldest women’s organizations globally.
In an article about the organization’s history, Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham said:
“It is an organization whose basic charter is caring for others.”
The legacy of the relief society is one of caring and compassion. One of the ways members of this great organization have cared for others is by providing meals for grieving families. Of course, this idea is not exclusive to “Mormon Culture,” but members of the Relief Society innovated, resulting in “Funeral Potatoes.”
When a family loses a loved one, gathering together is often unplanned and can be a significant hardship attached to an already stressful and mournful time. So, it is likely, that the Relief Society (or at least some of its members) developed this potato dish somewhere along the way because it was easy to make and serve to a big group. The dish was not exclusive to funerals; however, because of its simplicity, it fits the need perfectly. In addition, the simple recipe could be prepared by many different women simultaneously, making an otherwise harder task easy. In so doing, they have eased the burden and comforted many who were grieving.
Funeral Potatoes represent simple and common elements combined to do something greater than any single ingredient. Funeral Potatoes (with a few minor variations) are potatoes, cheese, onions, a creamy soup base, and a crunchy topping like cornflakes or potato chips. That is all. They are humble staples that can be quickly assembled and offer a form of compassion that someone can only get by eating a bunch of carbs.
They are a similitude of the Relief Society as a whole. This great women’s organization, whose motto is “Charity Never Faileth,” comprises the women in their respective communities who come together and do something greater than any woman could do alone.
Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said that the Relief Society would act upon the Savior’s words when he declared:
“Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work, which ye see me do.”
I have no real quarrel with anyone who calls this dish “Party Potatoes.” Nor do I need to use strong words to persuade someone else to call them whatever they wish.
I have been on the receiving end of the love and compassion that a band of local women can provide when I lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and others. Therefore, I will continue to call the dish by the name that bears a legacy forged by the LDS Church’s Relief Society.
Maybe they could be called “Party Potatoes,” “Service Potatoes,” “Comfort Potatoes,” or perhaps “Compassion Potatoes,” I will continue to call them “Funeral Potatoes.”