Remember that rich, creamy potato-and-cheese casserole that your grandma used to make? And remember that rich, creamy potato-and-cheese casserole that you baked and served after she died? If you just nodded after both of those question marks, then you’re already familiar with funeral potatoes. If you didn’t, then you’re either not from Utah or the Midwest—and you’re probably confused by Walmart’s recent Facebook ads.
Last week, some social media users became puzzled and concerned as their Facebook feeds started recommending a bagged, semi-homemade side dish called “funeral potatoes,” the plastic package of which describes them as “Potatoes to Die For” (although I’m partial to an alternate name suggested on Twitter, the Starch of Death). One of Walmart’s recent online ads is for Augason Farms’ pre-packaged Funeral Potatoes kit, which is an interesting line extension from a company that describes itself as the “leader in emergency food storage, survival gear, and water storage.” (Although I guess the days after Nuclear Armageddon will be filled with countless opportunities to prepare and serve shelf-stable funeral potatoes).
Augason Farms is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, which makes sense given funeral potatoes’ familiarity in that part of the United States. “Funeral Potatoes are as ‘Utah’ as green Jell-O and Sunday pot roasts,” Utah’s KSL radio station wrote in a post highlighting three of its go-to recipes. In fact, funeral potatoes are so Utah that when the Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake City in 2002, a series of collectable “Mormon Soul Food” pins were released, including a tiny enamel dish of funeral potatoes.
What Utah residents call funeral potatoes, other parts of the country might know simply as hash brown casserole, cheesy hash browns, or party potatoes. (Whether you call them funeral potatoes or party potatoes depends on who died, I guess). Although they did not originate with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Mormons have embraced them and made them a part of celebrations, holidays, family gatherings and, yes, funerals.
The Relief Society, an organization associated with the LDS, includes the dish in a how-to guide for preparing for a Mormon funeral. “If the family or the deceased are from Utah, they are probably expecting funeral potatoes to be served during the family meal,” Mormonshare writes, suggesting a sample menu that includes enough funeral potatoes for 12 to 15 people.
Whether you’re preparing them for the bereaved or not, the dish doesn’t seem to be super complicated: the main ingredients are a combination of frozen shredded hash browns, sour cream, cheddar, butter, and chopped onions. On an episode of The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond made them as part of a “new mom care package” for a friend. (WTF, Ree?) “[The Mormons] called them funeral potatoes, because that’s what they would take to funerals,” she said, cheerfully sauteeing some onions. She said that a “Mormon rule” stipulated that they can’t be made with fresh potatoes—only frozen hash browns.
Or you can go the Augason Farms freeze-dried route. “Actually made these for a funeral and was surprised and delighted by how good they were,” one five-star review on the company’s website says. “Received MULTIPLE compliments from grieving people.” If people can swallow their own tears long enough to thank you for a freeze-dried potato dish, then they have to be good.
Grandma who, right?