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Mormon women writing Relief Society and Latter-day Saint cookbooks

Latter-day Saint women have pioneered many food traditions. Although they are best known for funeral potatoes, scholars have studied their involvement in the American canning tradition or bread baking.

As Latter-day Saint pioneer women trekked across the plains into the Salt Lake Valley, they talked about flour. Scholar Kris Wright said, “Discussions about flour are ever present on the Mormon trail, whether it is in deliberations about how much could be taken, how little was rationed and how bread (or substitutions for it were made during the Western migration and early Utah period).”

Even in the earliest Relief Society minutes, women discussed making a ward bakery for the Salt Lake City 15th Ward. Alongside the women’s conversations about flour and their dreaming of establishing bakeries, Relief Society cookbooks emerged and became popular. Here’s a brief history of them.

Pioneer women began sharing recipes on the trail. They carried with them recipes from home, but they also had to carefully adapt recipes due to the lack of ingredients. Food shortages meant that women had to be creative.

One Danish immigrant mother made “corn surprises.” She ground up dried corn and added whatever ingredients she could—sometimes it was parsley, other times it was chopped up boiled eggs. Another pioneer recipe was called “a pioneer haystack.” Similar to a sea biscuit, they would combine rolled oats with flour, shortening, cream or buttermilk, salt, or baking soda for an easy to eat biscuit.

After pioneers arrived in Utah, they continued to cook and bake. They made more elaborate meals until Brigham Young instructed families to simplify their meal preparation. Mary Isabella Horne, Eliza R. Snow and other women formed the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association in 1870 and said about meal preparation, “Any table neatly spread, with no matter how plain, but wholesome, food, shall be considered fashionable.”

Women often recorded their recipes in their journals. These unpublished cookbooks documented what pioneer women ate on a daily basis. Sarah Mendenhall, who lived in Springville, Utah, recorded simple recipes like apea cakes and pickled plums in her journal. A 1969 issue of The Improvement Era contains a recipe for Johnny Cakes that pioneer women made. Johnnycakes happened to be a favorite of Joseph Smith.

According to information in the Church History Catalog, Relief Societies of specific wards started making cookbooks in the early 1900s, which is when these cookbooks started becoming popular.

In 1907, the Relief Society of the College Branch of the New Zealand mission published a cookbook. The first few pages list the names and addresses of women who contributed to the cookbook.

They offer some “slick tricks” that readers might find of interest. For example, the cookbook said, “Heat a lemon thoroughly before squeezing and you will obtain nearly double the quantity of juice.”

The cookbook is divided into sections like casseroles, vegetables, desserts and salads. Flipping to the casserole section, it reads, “If you want every meal to have appetite appeal, keep on hand a generous supply of casserole recipes.”

Among classics like Shepherd Pie from Lenore Bennis and Quick Bacon-Noodle Casserole from Relief Society Magazine, there are funkier favorites like Carrot Soufflé. Variations on scalloped potatoes appeared in the vegetables section, with funeral potatoes nowhere to be found.

The Rexburg, Idaho, Relief Society published a spiral bound cookbook in 1930 with 98 pages of recipes. The Church History Catalog also includes recipe books from Guam in 1959 and the Bonneville Ward in 1973. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers in Vernal, Utah, emerged with their spiral bound cookbook in 1960. Now considered vintage and a rare find, this cookbook contains pioneer recipes.

Containing classics like “Lazy Housewife Pickles” and “Strawberry Jam,” the Latter-day Saint tradition of canning and preserving is alive and well in this cookbook.

More modern Latter-day Saint cookbooks include the 1980 “Lion House Recipes.” The famous dinner rolls make an appearance, alongside the Utah favorite honey butter. Helen Thackery does include a recipe called potato casserole. Complete with cream of chicken soup, sour cream, cheddar cheese, potatoes, butter and corn flakes on top, this potato casserole seems to be just funeral potatoes by a different name.

Julie Badger Jensen’s “The Essential Mormon Cookbook: Combined Edition” compiles recipes from pioneer women to modern women. She organizes the cookbook by seasons and gives full meal plans for holidays. With Pioneer Day just around the corner, I looked to see her expert suggestions: pioneer beef stew, whole-wheat quick bread, sourdough bread, cabbage slaw, plum cobbler and molasses taffy appeared in the lineup. She said, “After a long day’s work, pioneers spent many happy hours singing, dancing, and pulling taffy together. This is old-fashioned fun for all.”

Written by “ordinary women,” these cookbooks preserve Latter-day Saint women’s diverse and eclectic heritage, as well as document their culture.

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