The first time I ever staged a ward funeral dinner, I made the decision NOT to serve funeral potatoes.
In fact, my committee and I didn't serve any of the dishes you traditionally find at Mormon funeral dinners. Ham. Rolls. Salads. Sheet cake. And, of course, funeral potatoes.
In case you've never had them, funeral potatoes are "potatoes au gratin" on steroids. They're loaded with onions! cheese! melted butter! sour cream! canned soup!
And then they're topped off with something crunchy.
I've always loved funeral potatoes — the gooier, the better — but for some reason I decided they weren't good enough for my first funeral dinner menu. I wanted to be different. Original. Memorable.
Well! I'll never forget the disappointed looks on the faces of the family when we did NOT break out the funeral potatoes.
These people had had a long hard day burying their grandmother, and they were definitely in the mood for some comfort on the food front — the kind of comfort only a mouthful of warm cheesy potatoes can provide. And there I was, dishing up arty Food Network fare.
I learned an important lesson that day: Innovation is fine — just not when it comes to certain meals.
I was thinking about all this on Saturday because I helped serve up another funeral dinner, this one for more than a hundred people. We put out the call for funeral potatoes and a dozen women showed up, warm casserole dishes in hand. You should have seen (and smelled!) all those cheesy, bubbling potatoes. Ah. Heaven.
Actually, I was struck by how each casserole was a little different from the casserole sitting next to it. Some were topped with cornflakes, others with crumbled Ritz crackers, and others still with grated Parmesan.
The potatoes were just as varied. Some were hash browns, while others were cubed. Some of the casseroles had onions, some didn't.
Like urban legends modified to reflect the cultural values of the teller, each dish said something about the tastes of the woman who'd made it.
Anyway. Don't tell. But when no one was looking, I sampled each casserole. (Don't be scared! I didn't use the same spoon! I'm completely classy that way!)
As a result, I know EXACTLY what I want at my own send-off. Please pay attention. Here's my Last Will and Testament involving potatoes.
I hereby want my potatoes to be of the hashed variety. While hash browns made from scratch taste best, the time spent peeling, boiling and shredding virgin tubers doesn't really justify the amount of work involved. So please feel free to start with bags of frozen shredded potatoes. I'm cool with that.
Also, please use plain cream of chicken soup. Don't use the herbed kind or the kind with allegedly roasted garlic. And please do NOT use the Healthy Request variety. Seriously. What's the point?
Now about the onions. Yes, please. I want lots. Green are best. As for the cheese, make it a straight-forward, honest cheddar.
Finally, don't get fancy with the topping. Crushed cornflakes drenched with butter will do the trick.
Above all, make sure there's plenty to go around.