SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's food culture is distinctive, but is it actually as unique as we think it is?
Few things are as quintessentially Utahn as fry sauce, but mixing ketchup and mayonnaise isn’t exactly a new idea. The condiment goes by different names in other parts of the world: “salsa golf” in Argentina, “salsa rosa” in Spain, “rot weiss” in Germany, “burger sauce” in the United Kingdom. It’s similar to Russian dressing or Thousand Island dressing, but staunch fry sauce devotees are quick to point out the differences.
The condiment known officially as “fry sauce” does have a Utah-based origin. As the story goes, Logan native Don Carlos Edwards developed the sauce in the late 1940s as a topping for burgers at Don Carlos Bar-B-Q. Edwards called his concoction of ketchup, mayo, garlic and a variety of other secret spices “pink sauce.” Later, when Edwards opened more restaurants under the name of Arctic Circle, fry sauce became a Utah staple.
While Arctic Circle lays claim to America’s first fry sauce, the condiment’s origins are still contested in Idaho, where some enthusiasts say Edwards borrowed the idea from a customer visiting from Preston, Idaho.
What’s more difficult to determine is how fry sauce went from being a restaurant specialty to being a regional favorite. Today, a Utah fast food restaurant without fry sauce is hard to imagine and even harder to locate. Many restaurants have developed their own signature fry sauces to compete with the Arctic Circle original. Even outsiders got a look at Utah’s fry sauce craze during the 2002 Olympics, when vendors sold pins shaped like fry sauce bottles and green jello.
Fry sauce has yet to gain much notoriety outside of Utah, but the six Arctic Circle locations outside of Utah and Idaho may be steps toward introducing the rest of the Western United States to Utah’s favorite condiment. In 2007, Arctic Circle and the producers of the now-defunct Some Dude’s Fry Sauce were selling more fry sauce in Oregon and Washington than in Utah. Until more states get into the fry sauce game, though, Utahns may be stuck creating their own when they travel out of state.
Jell-O has gone down in history as one of Utah’s favorite desserts, but the designation was a title won through hard work and stiff competition with Iowa.
To start, the infamous gelatin casseroles of lore (think tuna and carrots in lime gelatin), are more a product of time than of place. Christy Spackman, a Utah native who now teaches food science at Harvey Mudd College, said that America’s obsession with Jell-O can be traced back to the early 20th century.
According to Spackman, gelatins, gels and aspics were once foods of the elite, restricted to those with “French culinary know-how” and access to ice. The invention of Jell-O in 1897 democratized gelatin salads, leading to the creation of things like Perfection Salad (lemon vinaigrette gelatin filled with cabbage, carrots, celery and chopped pimiento). Perfection Salad was a turning point in the world of gelatin. Prior to the salad’s invention, few people had tried making vegetable aspics — gelatin was traditionally sweet, and vegetable salads were considered messy and unhygienic. The creation of Perfection Salad made vegetables more accessible to a generation committed to clean appearances.
That trend continued into the 1950s, but it wasn’t restricted to any one state. Families all across America were eating Jell-O salads.
“It makes sense to think of Jell-O as an icon of the 1950s domestic movement,” Spackman said in an interview with the Deseret News. “Women were being portrayed as the perfect housewives, at home in their dresses and heels, all made up, waiting for their husbands to come home with the kids perfectly coiffed and the houses perfectly vacuumed. And, you know, these are images. This isn’t reality. But that is the image that is certainly all over the advertising of the time period.”
Jell-O sales began dipping between the 1960s and the 1980s. In 1986, the Jell-O marketing team tried a new approach by linking Jell-O with family life. The new campaign was particularly successful in Utah and the Midwest, where residents tended to have larger families. In 1997, Kraft Foods released the sales figures of Jell-O in cities across the U.S. Salt Lake City came out first, and Des Moines, Iowa, followed closely behind.
Two years later, Utah lost its title and Iowans took over as America’s No. 1 Jell-O purchasers. But Salt Lake City chef Scott Blackerby wasn’t down for it — with the help of several Utah residents, Blackerby led a “Take Back the Title” campaign by hosting Utah’s first week-long Jell-O celebration. Not long after, Brigham Young University student Jeremiah Christenot began a petition to make Jell-O the official state food. On Jan. 31, 2001, Jell-O became Utah’s official state snack with a state Legislature vote of 25-2.
Utah State Sen. Ron Allen was one of the two who voted against the resolution.
“The suggestion that Jell-O is the carrot-sprinkled glue that keeps families together has pushed me over the edge,” he told the Arizona Daily Sun.
Despite Allen’s distaste for the dessert, Jell-O has remained a mainstay in Utah culture. Utahns traded Jell-O-shaped pins during the 2002 Olympics, and Salt Lake City even donated a wooden arch bearing the product’s name to the Jell-O Gallery Museum in LeRoy, New York.
Spackman hasn’t researched funeral potatoes with the same fervor that she has Jell-O, but she suspects that potato casseroles originated at a similar time. Like Jell-O, she said, funeral potatoes may be a more industrialized take on traditional French cooking — specifically potatoes au gratin. With the introduction of frozen and canned foods, though, variations on potatoes au gratin became simpler and more accessible.
The true origin of funeral potatoes has been lost to time, but one can speculate about how the dish became such a Utah staple. Most recipes for potato casserole require only a few easily purchased ingredients, and they feed a large group of people fairly cheaply. Given the casserole’s frequent presence at both family and church events, one could easily imagine that it gained popularity for being easy to prepare. The recipe likely spread throughout the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the help of Relief Society cookbooks, which made many traditional “Mormon foods” ubiquitous.
Variations on potato casseroles aren’t unique to Utah, but the dish’s name certainly is. It’s easy enough to figure out where funeral potatoes got their name. Funeral potatoes are simple, hearty and comforting — all qualities that make them ideal for grieving. Now, of course, they’re a popular side dish at any event, funeral or not.
Like green Jell-O, funeral potatoes have made their mark on Utah food culture. They too got their own pin during the Olympics, and for several years the Utah State Fair hosted an annual competition to find the best new funeral potatoes recipe.