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Utahn Kate Holbrook spends a lot of time thinking about food.
No, Holbrook is not a Beehive State version of Martha Stewart. She is not on a diet or hawking a cookbook. She is working on her doctoral dissertation, "Radical Food: Mormon Foodways and the American Mainstream."
Holbrook brings unusual training to the topic. She received a master's degree in theological studies with a focus on comparative religion from Harvard Divinity School in 2001 and currently is concentrating her doctoral studies at Boston University on religion and society.
Now the University of Utah's Tanner Humanities Center has awarded her its new Fellowship in Mormon Studies to spend a year exploring the connection between what she sees as a somewhat distinctive Mormon cuisine and the LDS Church's theology, rituals and practices.
Consider the two most stereotypical Mormon dishes -- Jell-O and so-called "funeral potatoes" (a potato and cheese casserole).
Consuming a lot of Jell-O means Mormons like food "that is sweet, that appeals to a large number of people, including children, is easy to prepare and inexpensive, and travels well either to large family dinners or church social occasions," Holbrook says. "It also shows Mormons value celebrations. Jell-O is festive -- it's colorful, and it wiggles."
Funeral potatoes reveal how Mormonism diminishes class differences, she says. "The people who bring funeral potatoes to a gathering have put aside their egos. Instead of putting on airs, they are trying to please the general palate."
But Holbrook's research goes well beyond those two dishes.
She will look at what Mormons in the mid-20th century thought was good or bad to eat, the importance of Welfare Square and family gardens, fasting, table manners and hospitality.
Food represents parental care, self-control, environmental custody or degradation, and the way an economy is constructed, Holbrook says. "Food affects community -- who belongs, who is excluded, who is equal, who is better. In my work, I study how Latter-day Saints negotiate these tensions."
It also sets out a community's priorities.
LDS food habits include caring for the sick and the poor, honoring physical bodies, meeting stewardship obligations to the Earth, fostering community and strengthening families, she says. "Looking at these aspects of foodways will tell a story about how people are approaching all of these goals -- what become the most common successes and where compromises tend to happen."
Holbrook's research is an "intriguing exploration of the connections between food, culture and religion and how these factors combined in special ways in Mormon society," says Bob Goldberg, professor of history at the U. and director of the Tanner Center, in a news release.
The Mormon Studies fellowship was established with a grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, but Goldberg hopes to make it a permanent program at the center. To that end, he and the center's steering committee have launched a campaign to raise $400,000 for an endowment to ensure "a permanent place for Mormon studies at the University of Utah."