While many Latter-day Saint grandmothers and mid-century homemakers certainly considered their colorful towers of jiggling fruit and gelatin art, photographic artist Daniel George has taken it a step further—he’s styled and photographed the food for an exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City.
Stereotypical Latter-day Saint foods like Jell-O and funeral potatoes have become somewhat of a cliché, but most of us have memories—fond or otherwise—of these unique dishes. George’s goal with this new exhibit is to prompt further conversations about this niche part of the Church’s social culture while highlighting the visually interesting aspects of the food.
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George grew up as a member of the Church in Nebraska and now teaches in the art and design department at Utah Valley University. Even growing up outside of Utah, George had seen his fair share of interesting foods at Church, but he was still surprised by what he learned while creating this exhibit. “I probably saw some iteration of [most of these dishes] at ward potlucks . . . [so] I knew all sorts of, let’s say, non-traditional or unexpected items we put into gelatin. But I never imagined things like shrimp, bell peppers, onions, and mayonnaise would find their way into a Jell-O mold. That takes an imagination.”
The exhibit is titled Marrow after the verse in Doctrine and Covenants 89:18 which promises those who follow the Word of Wisdom “marrow to their bones” and features dishes George found in old Latter-day Saint ward cookbooks. For the photographs, many of the dishes were staged with culturally familiar backdrops, like on faux walnut wood tables or in front of tan Sisal (think scratchy church corridor) walls. He also cooked all the dishes for the exhibit himself, except for the Lion House Rolls. “I outsourced those to my wife, who has refined roll-making skills,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
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The best and worst things he made?
“The baked dishes like the BYU brownies and Lion House Rolls were obvious hits with my family,” George told LDS Living. “And some of the fruitier Jell-O molds went over well with the kids. I don’t really have much of a taste for anything made with ‘cream of [whatever]’ soups, so most of the casseroles were fairly unappetizing to me. But I won’t hate on them. Those dishes are comfort foods to others. Not me, though.”
Some people may argue that the recipes in some of those old Latter-day Saint ward cookbooks are . . . less than delicious. But George now has a deeper appreciation for the homemakers who created these dishes for family gatherings and social functions.
“There is a lot of individual pride in the foods brought to potlucks and recipes preserved in ward cookbooks,” he says. “There has to be at least some degree of gratification found in the act of making a dish, sharing it with others, and then passing along on the recipe.”
George also said that as a Latter-day Saint, his faith informs his creative practice. “I feel like the way I see and approach subject matter comes from a place of empathy, or at least a desire to understand,” he noted. “I often lean into humor because that’s how my mind works. I feel like everyone has a divinely appointed creative impulse. I’m trying to run with mine.”
Marrow will be on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) in Salt Lake City through October 23. Learn more about the exhibit here.