Thanksgiving has its green bean casseroles and sweet potato casseroles, and American funerals have their special food like deviled eggs and funeral potatoes. If you live in the South, Mid-West, Rocky Mountains, and West, there's a good chance Funeral Potatoes is the comfort food of choice "fast food for hard times." So, what is it, and how did it get its sad name?
The origin story of Funeral Potatoes is a little hard to pinpoint as it had a lot of different names like hash-brown casserole, cheesy hash browns, those potatoes, and party potatoes. However, many cooks, including one of my favorite cooks, Ree Drummond, (better known as Pioneer Women), agree that this wonderfully easy to make cheesy comfort food probably originated in the Mormon community. It’s easy to make in large quantities, and it freezes well for later.
One of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world is the Relief Society, a philanthropic and educational women's organization of the Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Founded in 1842, the Relief Society has over 7 million members in almost 200 countries. An auxiliary organization involved in ministering to the sick, poor, weddings, births, and deaths needed quick to make meals for their endless ministry.
Utah is still the epicenter of the country for Funeral Potatoes which pretty much have the same easy to put-together list of ingredients:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter
One 28- to 32-ounce bag frozen shredded hash brown potatoes
1 medium onion, finely diced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup sour cream with cheese, or cream soup
1/2 cup more cheese (grated sharp Cheddar from Pioneer Woman's recipe)
2 cups kettle-cooked potato chips or corn flakes
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Other variants include blue ribbon secret ingredients, bacon, jalapenos, or other surprises.
Mormons are prohibited from drinking and smoking, but there are no rules for indulging in carb-rich Mormon ready-made favorite foods: cream cheese Jell-O, "dirty soda" — a virgin drink spiked with flavored syrup, canned soup on instant rice, Sprite in sherbet, ice cream of every available flavor, and of course, Corn Flakes on potatoes au gratin, or 'Funeral Potatoes' the essential fast food for hard times.
The Utah State Fair even has its unique category contest for the best funeral potatoes in Utah every year. There are southwestern versions, with corn salsa and beans, and jalapeno jack cheese. And if you go to Wisconsin, you'll discover different cheese variations. Or Southern recipes with green onion and baby potatoes. If you Google' Funeral Potatoes' or go to Pinterest and look for Funeral Potatoes, you'll quickly find hundreds of different variations. But the purists believe in keeping it simple with Corn Flakes and lots of dairy.
So, the next time you find yourself headed to a funeral or celebration of life memorial that includes food, consider taking a casserole of Funeral Potatoes. No need to worry if someone else has the same idea because if you go to any potluck in Utah, you’ll find at least five different kinds to try. (Note: 48 of 50 States Now Allow Food at Funerals. As of the writing of this blog, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are the last two states that by law, disallow food to be brought into a funeral home. If you're having an "off-site" wake, gathering, or celebration in a venue other than a funeral home, you should be good to go).
And if you're the departed's family, and you are having it catered; consider providing a blue ribbon winning recipe to your caterer. They can easily replicate it alongside your family's cookbook or recipe card favorites. Funeral Potatoes and comfort food is a pretty neat tradition with or without faith.