What exactly is a Mormon cookbook? Yeah, we wondered, too. And so we requested a copy of The Essential Mormon Cookbook by Julie Badger Jensen, from the Deseret Book Company, a publisher in Salt Lake City (the book was originally published in 2004; the Kindle edition was released earlier this year). Turns out there are a lot of Mormon cookbooks out there, but we couldn't resist one that calls itself "essential." You know, being a Mitt Romney sort of campaign year and all.
The closest we could find to a definition of a Mormon cookbook is in Jensen's Introduction.
"Within the pages of this book, you will find a lifetime of treasured recipes," she says. "They range from pioneer family heirlooms to current favorites. The influence of diverse Mormon ancestral roots, of missions to intriguing foreign lands, and of generous neighbors of other faiths has added richness to this collection."
Funny, leave out a few descriptors (Mormon, missions), and it sounds pretty much like every home cook's journey, from the early days of family recipe box cooking to our more global Friday night supper vision today. Maybe the subtitle could serve as our stand-in definition? Even if not, it's pretty fantastic: Green Jell-O, Funeral Potatoes and Other Secret Combinations.
It turns out the "secret combinations" here are more in the everyday (old-school) recipe context. Think hash-brown quiche and waffles with strawberries for breakfast, basic quesadillas and Monte Cristo sandwiches, potato and chicken salads, summer salads made with lemon Jell-O and lemonade concentrate, and plenty of processed cheese ("cheese squares" are made from white bread, crusts removed, spread with Cheez Whiz and broiled). Actually, The Essential Mormon Cookbook is the sort of 1960s-style cooking that could be summed up with a loaf of white sandwich bread -- dark crusts removed, of course ("An electric knife works well," per the recipe headers). But hey, sometimes we can all use a little tea-sandwich recipe nostalgia.
In the copy of Our Best Bites: Mormon Moms in the Kitchen, a book published last year by two young moms and former BYU students, we didn't get much further on our Mormon cookbook definition quest. In the Introduction, authors Sara Wells and Kate Jones explain how they started a (very Ree Drummond-ish) food blog together, which led to this "Mormon moms" cookbook. Funny, that sounds pretty much like every blogger-turned cookbook author's story. And like The Essential Mormon Cookbook, you won't find any theology on these methodical, spiral-bound, simple oven-roasted broccoli pages. Maybe a Mormon cookbook is about the ingredients?
Wells and Jones often note that unlike their moms, they prefer real lime and lemon juice to the bottled versions and are fans of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as most of us are these days. Yet there is still a noticeable overriding Mad Men theme in the simplistic recipes: Cream cheese-based dips for fresh fruit, salads like barbecue chicken Cobb and that ubiquitous 1990s-era "Asian cabbage" version, pretty basic breads and cakes (dinner rolls, flour tortillas, monkey bread and pound cake with the occasional garlic or cinnamon twist). Maybe that nostalgia side of things is the real Mormon recipe equation, as even the fresh young Mormon faces behind Our Best Bites use plenty of canned green chilies rather than the readily accessible, freshly roasted ones, and those store-bought mixes also make appearances here (their cornbread recipe calls for both yellow cake mix and Jiffy corn bread mix).
As The New York Times recently reported, that nod to simple, dump-it-all-in 1950s and '60s cuisine perhaps has something to do with the pre-blog era of somewhat isolated Utah cooking culture. All well and good. But go back another generation to '20s and '30s-era everyday American family recipes, or even earlier, and that's a nostalgic stone ground cornmeal and fresh roasted chile pepper sort of Mormon cookbook -- or simply any cookbook -- that we would love to see.