University of Utah fellow to study origins of Mormon food subculture

Published: Monday, May 17 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Beyond Jell-0 salads and funeral potatoes, Mormons have carved out a distinctive food subculture for themselves, and while it is widely known that they don't drink alcohol or use tobacco and are encouraged to collect a supply of food storage, little is known about why and where the traditions come from.

Kate Holbrook, a Utah-based doctoral candidate at Boston University, will spend the next year researching the history, beliefs and culture of the church and its members, to better understand LDS food culture throughout the mid-20th century and how this culture affected the relationship between Mormons and a broader society. She is the first-ever Mormon studies fellow to be awarded at the University of Utah.

"Religion has a profound impact on what people do, how they feel, how they vote and shop and cook … but there's still much to learn about the ways ordinary people bring religious thinking to their everyday tasks," said Holbrook, who holds a master of theological studies degree with a focus on comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School. "Whether people ally themselves to a particular tradition or not, their relationship to religion and religious ideas is a key way they define themselves and make moral judgments."

Understanding that impact, within the cultural contexts in which Mormons live and worship, she said, will help the world better understand the way Mormons eat and why it matters.

A committee at the U., led by history professor Bob Goldberg, hopes to keep the fellowship in full swing following Holbrook's work. He has launched a fundraising campaign to establish the $400,000 endowment necessary to ensure a permanent place for Mormon studies at the U., to further study various aspects of Mormon history and culture.

He said Holbrook's research is "an intriguing exploration of the connections between food, culture and religion and how these factors combine in special ways in Mormon society."

Mormonism as a subject of scholarly interest was for many years explored by only Latter-day Saint researchers and a small number of non-Mormon scholars, but now the field is attracting more academic attention from researchers outside the faith, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2008, chairs in Mormon studies were established at Utah State University and at California's Claremont Graduate University. The idea was under consideration at the University of Wyoming, while Mormon-related specific courses are offered at other universities, including Harvard Divinity School, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Richmond, Vanderbilt University, Utah Valley University and Arizona State University.

Throughout the next year, Holbrook, who is also Mormon, will study archives at USU, the U. and Brigham Young University, as well as the Church History Library and the Utah State Historical Society. She said the end product will add a Mormon part to a larger book project, called "Radical Food," that includes the study of the "Catholic Worker" and the "Nation of Islam" (the religious movement that included Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali). She said she is looking at the three groups because "each of them cared immensely about how food is produced and the this-worldly implications for how people eat."

"Each of these groups was working to craft a better world, and eating habits were an important part of that effort," Holbrook said. She is specifically studying the time period between the 1930s and the 1970s, and believes that the LDS Welfare System, as it was codified in the 1930s, might have more to do with Mormon food habits than does the Word of Wisdom.

During that time, Holbrook said Mormon eating habits included cooking with ingredients from food storage, a regular 24-hour fast from food and drink, frequent casual dinner parties among local congregations, and growing their own food.

"Through these practices, Mormons have had a fascinating relationship with food production, feeding the hungry and stewardship over the earth," she said, relating the LDS traditions with many of the locavore emphasis, which pushes for food from gardens and farmer's markets, as well as the slow-food movement, which encourages a trend away from fast food and the conveniences of preservatives.

"So many Americans now — and people all over the world — want to eat in a way that nourishes their bodies, their souls, their relationships and the earth," she said. Her project intends to "fill the gaps" and will result in an understanding of "Mormon foodways and the American mainstream."

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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