This Utahn cooked — and photographed — the classic recipes that define Mormon food culture for a new exhibit in Salt Lake City.
When Utah photographer Daniel George was researching his latest historical project, one colorful food kept coming to his attention: green Jell-O.
George, who teaches at Orem’s Utah Valley University, was not interested in eating the sugary snack. Rather, he wanted to understand how this gelatinous concoction — often called salad and filled with carrots — had become part of the culinary heritage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I like that one food is so closely related to the culture,” he said. “I thought that was kind of intriguing.”
The Nebraska native was interested in other foods found at Latter-day Saint potlucks — from funeral potatoes to Hawaiian haystacks, frog eye salad and Jade punch.
Photographs of all these dishes — and more — are now part of his latest exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) in Salt Lake City.
The show, which runs through Oct. 23, is titled “Marrow,” a term often used in Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings that refers to a healthy lifestyle.
“It could also be used to describe the core or essence of something,” George said. “Since the recipes and photographs highlight some of the prototypical Utah-Mormon potluck dishes, that title seemed most appropriate.”
Some of the dishes that George photographed look tempting, especially the BYU mint brownies and the Lion House rolls. But the four photographs of molded Jell-O — in orange, yellow, green and blue — are the most satisfying to see.
“The colors are so striking,” he said. “And I really enjoy how absurd and over-the-top they turned out.”
At one time, Utahns consumed more Jell-O per capita than any other U.S. state. It was so popular that it was declared the official state snack in 2001, just in time to produce the ever-popular green Jell-O trading pin for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.
Even Sen. Mike Lee celebrates the dish weekly during his free Jell-O Wednesday events. (They have been postponed during the pandemic.)
George, who is a Latter-day Saint, said growing up in the Midwest, he didn’t have the same cultural experiences as members born and reared in the Beehive State.
When he moved to Utah in 2017, the culture “was both familiar and foreign,” he said. “It was like I recognized it and kind of knew where it was coming from. But, at the same time, it was a new experience.”
George first became interested in photography and the visual arts in high school through skateboard magazines, he said. “My parents bought me a video camera, which I used to record my friends skating. But I never made any consequential still images until I was in college.”
George earned a bachelor’s degree in photography from Brigham Young University-Idaho and a master’s from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
For the past decade, the 37-year-old Vineyard resident has been exhibiting his work in solo and group shows. But “Marrow,” he said, is his first Salt Lake City show.
The seed for “Marrow” was planted while George was working on another LDS-inspired project — photographing small Utah towns that the pioneers had named after Book of Mormon and Bible sites, such as Ephraim, Moroni and Jerusalem.
At the time, he was teaching at Brigham Young University in Provo and had access to the library’s special collections. It was there that he discovered cookbooks compiled by members of Latter-day Saint wards, or congregations.
“That’s when I got more interested in Mormon cuisine,” he said, “and saw how ward cookbooks function as an artifact of history and culture.”
George began buying ward cookbooks at used bookstores and yard sales before ultimately applying for UMOCA’s artist-in-residence program.
In addition to photos, George chose 63 of the most interesting cookbook covers — with titles like the “10th Ward Tempting Tidbits” and “Celestial Recipes” — to hang in a grid. The formation, with it lace tablecloth background, shows the diversity of ward publications from across the nation.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “to see how those distinct food items — that maybe originated here — traveled to other areas.”
George said he cooked all the dishes for the exhibit — using recipes found in those ward cookbooks. The Lion House rolls were the only exception. “I outsourced those to my wife, who has refined roll-making skills.”
He encourages those attending the show to think — beyond food — about what they’re viewing.
“What else do these items communicate?” he asked. ” My interest in making this work has been to consider what food can represent beyond sustenance. What does it say about culture, particularly the predominant religious and social culture of the state of Utah?”
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