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Now media wonders how Mormonism shapes Mitt's eating habits

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2012 4:32 p.m. MDT

Canning home-grown foods is part of the Mormon food tradition, journalists say.

LDS Church

You can tell the national media is getting serious about covering Mitt Romney's Mormon roots when NPR's food blog, called the Salt, does a story about how the presidential candidate's faith shapes his eating habits.

"There is such a thing as a Mormon food culture," writes Boston-native Sue Spinale McCrory, former NPR food show host. "In fact, Mormon culinary traditions, or foodways, closely resemble the tenets of the 'good food movement' currently shaping many Americans' renewed interest in food — i.e., cooking from scratch, emphasizing whole grains, and locally sourced fruits and vegetables."

The writer says the Mormon food tradition stems from the church's pioneer past as well as from health practices stemming from the Word of Wisdom, an 1833 revelation given to Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Word of Wisdom, often referred to as "the Lord's law of health," prescribes healthy eating habits and forbids the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and "hot drinks" — which has since been interpreted to mean coffee and tea.

She also notes the Mormon penchant for preparation and storage, which has led to "the vigorous practice of canning that has marked LDS communities in the past … and the 'putting up' of foods culled from family gardens." However, she said, as with most others, Mormon food traditions changed as a result of the processed, frozen and canned foods that became kitchen staples after World War II.

"For modern Mormon families, favorites might include Funeral Potatoes and a small repertoire of sweets, made mostly from processed ingredients such as Jell-O, pretzels and Cool Whip, that fall within the so-called 'Bad Mormon Dessert' category," McCrory said. "Don't be fooled; they're delicious."

Christy Spackman, a Ph.D. candidate in food studies at New York University who says she grew up Mormon, focused her "Mormon food" attention on Jell-O in a Slate article that asks: "Why do we associate the (Mormon) religion with the gelatin dessert?"

It hasn't always been so, Spackman says.

"For example, a 1969 New York Times article on Mormon foods contains no mention of the jiggly dessert," she writes. "A 1988 New York Times article, 'What's the Hot Item in Town? Depends on the Town,' associates Salt Lake City with bubble gum, Cracker Jack and Kraft macaroni and cheese, while Des Moines, Iowa, is credited with being No. 1 in consumption of Jell-O (and, incidentally, Skippy peanut butter). That same year, a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist identified funeral Jell-O as an undying tradition in the Lutheran Church.'"

The linkage of Jell-O with Utah and Mormonism came through the product's Jell-O Jigglers marketing campaign of the late 1980s, which Spackman says was a desperate effort to save a declining brand by repositioning it "as a tactile treat that brings together parents and children."

"As a state with one of the highest birth rates in the nation, Utah is and was an ideal market for foods aimed at families," Spackman said. "With their family-friendly playfulness and ease of preparation, Jigglers were a hit with Utah children. More small mouths meant more boxes of Jell-O sold."

When per capita sales figures were released as part of the 100th anniversary of Jell-O in 1997, Salt Lake City came in as No. 1. In 2001 Utah legislators made Jell-O the official state snack, and in 2002 the green Jell-O pin was a prized trading object during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"In adopting and making Jell-O 'their' food, Mormons (or Lutherans or Methodists) are making a statement about their identity, accepting all of the food's positive connotations of family-friendliness, child-centeredness and domesticity," Spackman concluded. "Outsiders, in contrast, often look in and see Jell-O as a mark of a lack of taste that renders this group strange, immature and ultimately mockable."

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