What the Heck Are Funeral Potatoes?

Their origin is a bit more wholesome than the name might suggest. 

The world of food is replete with weird names that — at least initially — don't seem to tell the full story. A baked Alaska is hardly baked, and didn't come from Alaska. Head cheese is, uh, not cheese. And if you ask for sweetbread thinking you're about to get something you'd find at a bakery, you're going to be very disappointed.

While some of these strangely-named foods can make you squeamish, none sound as morbid as funeral potatoes. Who would want to eat a food that inspires memories of grief and images of coffins? It doesn't sound like a party starter, to say the least. As some have pointed out, the dish is certainly due for a rebrand.

Despite your natural confusion (and even concern) about the name, there's a real reason that those who love this type of potato casserole dish the most refer to it as "funeral potatoes" without batting an eye or shedding a tear. Here's the story of that dish, its place in Mormon culinary history, and how you can replicate it yourself.

Why Are They Called Funeral Potatoes?

While "funeral potatoes" is an unsettling name in the abstract, it makes perfect sense when placed in the context of when and how it's served within the Mormon/LDS community.

In Utah and surrounding states where Mormons tend to make up a decent chunk of the population, a potluck-style luncheon reception is a standard occurrence after funerals. Though many attendees would bring dishes, a female-run community organization called the Relief Society, whose mission involves helping the infirm, poor, and anyone else facing hard times, often play a role in planning, prepping, and cooking for what some refer to as the post-funeral "mercy meal."

Cooking for a large number of mourners is never an easy task, so any kind of crowd-feeding (and pleasing) dishes that can be made relatively simply are a godsend. Enter the humble, carb-laden cheesy potato casserole. Essentially, the dish combines cubed potatoes with either hash browns or tater tots (depending on who you ask), cheese, a creamy sauce or soup, and breadcrumbs or another crunchy element on top. Together, it's something anyone who's not religiously adhering to a keto diet can enjoy.

It's hard to say exactly when that dish became "funeral potatoes," though it's easy to believe that the designation arrived organically over time. There's evidence of the term's use online dating back to at least 1996, though this dish has probably been considered "to die for" (as Augason Farms says of its instant funeral potatoes) for a fair amount longer.

Homemade Funeral Potatoes Casserole
bhofack2 via Getty Images

Why Are Funeral Potatoes So Popular?

The fact that they can feed a decent number of people in a potluck-style setting is reason enough, but Mormon and journalist Ash Sanders posited an interesting theory about the dish's popularity. With their beliefs forbidding "vices" like alcohol and coffee that even their squarest non-practicing neighbors enjoy from time to time, Sanders argues Mormons get their kicks from carbs, fats, and sugar instead. If that's the case, combining potatoes, cheese, and, in some cases, potato chips into one casserole is a surefire way to make a Mormon-friendly guilty pleasure.

That may help explain the dish's broader popularity outside of the dish's namesake occasion, because as it turns out, funeral potatoes aren't exclusive to funerals. Though serving them at a wedding or a baptism might send the wrong message, they're not an uncommon sight whenever Mormons gather in large numbers to share food, like around the holidays or at other get-togethers.

In Utah, the celebration of funeral potatoes extends even further. Back when Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, funeral potatoes were memorialized as part of a series of commemorative pins dedicated to "Mormon Soul Food." Though it seems to be sitting in the garage these days, recent times saw a "Cook of Mormon" food truck dishing out funeral potatoes to eager eaters all around SLC.

How to Make Funeral Potatoes

As with any homespun dish, there are nearly as many ways to make funeral potatoes as there are Mormons who make them. Each element of this casserole leaves room for ingredient swaps, customizations, and tweaks that can fine-tune it to any mourner's preferences.

What most funeral potatoes seem to share, however, is an emphasis on convenience over freshness. Instant potatoes and frozen hash browns are the name of the game here, though frozen tater tots take the place of the latter ingredient in some cases. Similarly, canned cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup will serve admirably without the need for anything from scratch. Same with the cornflakes or chips that often function in the place of breadcrumbs, with your proclivity for salt or crunch determining the choice here.

Get the Recipe: Funeral Potatoes

In addition to potatoes, hash browns/tots, creamed soup of choice, and cornflake/chips, you'll want to have access to sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, butter, salt, pepper, and onion powder (or flakes). You'll first want to combine the sour cream, butter, salt, pepper, and onion to mix together, later adding in your instant starches of choice and the cheddar cheese. Assemble that in a baking dish, crush up your crunchy element to top things off, and bake at 350 degrees F until you've got melty cheese and a crispy top layer.

So whether or not you love this cheesy potato dish, just know that funeral potatoes aren't some kind of haunted starch you'd serve on Halloween. In fact, they're a whole lot more wholesome than that, even if a nutritionist might disagree. So whether you read the Book of Mormon or have just heard of the musical, it's time to start planning arrangements to make these potatoes.


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