It takes traveling outside of Utah and ordering fry sauce at a burger place or getting an English-style baked scone instead of fry bread with honey butter on a restaurant menu to realize that our state has a distinct food culture. Eric A. Eliason, professor of English at Brigham Young University, began a quest to chronicle specific Utah dishes in a book almost seven years ago. The project quickly gained two more editors, Carol A. Edison and Lynne S McNeill, 60 contributors, and stories of food traditions from Logan to St. George in “This is the Plate: Utah Food Traditions.”
“We wanted this to be an academic book on the culture and history and significance of Utah foods as well as a foodie and recipe book,” explained Eliason. He has served as a judge at the annual Utah Foods Cook-Off at Thanksgiving Point since its inception in 2014. The cook-off features categories for fry sauce, funeral potatoes, Jell-O, Dutch oven, and scones. Each of those categories has a chapter in “This is the Plate,” along with thick shakes, doctored sodas, pastrami burgers, and saltwater taffy. “I don’t think over-the-top shakes have entered the cultural awareness yet, but that is a distinctly Utah thing,” Eliason pointed out.
“All healthy, vibrant traditions have a dynamic, productive tension between keeping things the same as they’ve always been done, honoring the tradition and incorporating creativity and innovation,” said Eliason. “Traditions that die out are too conservative, those that never take off are too innovative. Food is a wonderful example of this. People are constantly tinkering with and adapting recipes.”
Eliason takes judging iconic Utah foods at the annual cook-off seriously. One year an entry in the funeral potatoes category put a southwest spin on the dish, complete with colored corn chips on top instead of corn flakes. “It was delicious, but we couldn’t give first prize to southwest-style funeral potatoes in a Utah foods competition,” remembered Eliason. Best in Show winner in 2020, Adam Schwed’s donut-shaped Jell-O stands out as one of the most remarkable entries Eliason has ever seen.
“This is the Plate” is much more than a recipe book and a history of iconic Utah foods. It also includes the state’s rich immigrant food stories, the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints culture on now-famous Utah foods, and the history of local specialties like Sanpete turkey and Dixie salad. Eliason was disappointed to learn about Lehi’s rodeo burger and secret sauce that is only available at Kohler’s during Round-Up week every year at the end of June. “That should have been in our Local Specialties section. When you do a book like this, you always find out about things after it’s published,” said Eliason.
“This is the Plate: Utah Food Traditions” will bring up fond food memories for native Utahns and transplants alike.