Earlier this week, I was asked to contribute some food for a funeral. A neighbor of mine passed away and in the four years I have lived in this neighborhood, I’ve never met this woman. We were members of the same church, she was elderly, and that’s all I know about her.
Despite my distant association, I was happy to oblige. I was assigned a dish associated with most memorial services here in Utah–Funeral Potatoes. This home cooked hug, with its melt-in-your-mouth mixture of potatoes and cheese, soothed my own soul at my mother’s funeral so many years ago.
It’s been five years, but I can still remember returning from the cemetery and having the smell of something wonderful grab me by my coat collar as I walked back into the church. I recall shaking the snow off my black heels and clutching the arm of the closest person next to me.
“Sheela,” I whisper to my youngest sister. “We’re going to eat Funeral Potatoes.”
My seventeen-year-old sibling stops and takes a deep breath. With one long inhale she soaks in the savory aroma of slow cooked onions drifting down the hall. “Umm, potatoes,” she says. “I completely forgot about them.”
“Me too,” I answer back. I am still holding on to her arm. With the promise of food in our bellies, the somber mood shifts, and we enter the large reception room with hungry anticipation.
A long buffet table is already set, awaiting our arrival. Slices of ham are arranged in swirly spirals on large platters. Bowls of green salad tossed with tomatoes and olives sit next to a baking sheet filled with white dinner rolls. In the very center of the table, the star of this meal, a large assortment of Funeral Potatoes.
The beauty of this hearty-enough-for-a-meal accompaniment, is that not one dish is exactly the same. Every family has their own version, their unique spin on this classic potato dish. Some are topped with crushed cornflakes. Others, salty cracker crumbs and cheddar cheese. One dish may have scalloped potatoes, another shredded potatoes; some others use tater tots.
Behind me, I hear the awed murmurs of my California relatives. They are impressed with such an organized spread. This is very likely the largest gathering of Asians to ever visit the small town of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.
Standing in line behind me, my cousin Denny looks overwhelmed at all his choices.
“Basically, it’s a potato casserole,” I explain to him. “Covered with cheese, and lots of creamy soup.” A fireman working in Oakland, Denny is eying a lumpy tater tot rendition with caution.
“Which one do I pick?” he whispers back.
“Don’t worry, they are all good,” my sister Teela jumps in. As to prove the validity of her statement, she takes a scoop out of the tater tot variety. “The best thing to do is to try them all.”
Encouraged by Teela’s example, the rest of us decide to do the same. I scoop four different potatoes on my plate and my husband Brendan fills his plate with five.
As my cousins and siblings sample the bountiful varieties of potatoes and cheese, funeral potatoes gain at least 12 more fans and I see my mother’s family go back for seconds. Then thirds. At the cousin table, we disclose our favorites, debating the merits of each version. Denny likes the breadcrumb topping, crumbly and rich with melted butter. I prefer my potatoes sliced thin, into round scalloped moons.
During lunch, people come by to offer their condolences and congratulate me on my pregnancy. This baby would have been Mom’s first grandchild. I take another bite of hot potatoes. Perfectly soft and buttery in my mouth.
“Okay, no. I change my mind,” Denny exclaims, interrupting my thoughts. His eyes close in bliss as he lifts another spoonful of potatoes to his mouth. “This one? With the different kinds of cheese on top? My new favorite. I gotta get me some more.”
He gets up and heads back to the buffet, our laughter following him. These potatoes have helped us smile. Somehow, I have managed to find a little fun in this funeral. I savor the moment and take another potato-y bite.
Thinking back to this memory, I can’t help but feel appreciation for the members of my church and community who helped ease my sadness that day. I know the burden that planning a funeral can be. I felt lucky today to have had the chance to give back, to help provide comfort to another mourning family with a dish of my own Funeral Potatoes.
Note: Have you had Funeral Potatoes? What is your favorite variety? While I will happily eat whatever is given to me, when I make it, I like to be as natural as possible. I use homemade cream of celery soup instead of the usual condensed kind. Shred my own cheddar cheese. Cornflakes are great, but homemade breadcrumbs? Even better. It’s hard to go wrong with something this rich and soothing.
recipe inspired by my mother-in-law Norma
5 lbs. Yukon Gold Potatoes
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1/2 small yellow onion
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, divided
1 pint (16 oz.) sour cream
2 cups cream of celery soup
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup homemade breadcrumbs or crushed cornflakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Wash and peel potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch circular slices. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and cold water to a large stock pot. Next place the cut potatoes. Heat on high till boiling, then reduce heat to medium and cook for about 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain potatoes and place in a 13″ x 9″ pan. Set aside.
Next, using the small holes of a grater, grate the onion. The onion will be very juicy, very mushy. In this dish, I like my onions in the background. Grate enough for three tablespoons, if you have any remaining onion, reserve for another use.
In a medium size bowl, mix the onion, 1/4 cup of melted butter, sour cream, cream of celery soup, remaining teaspoon of salt and 1 1/2 cups of the cheese together. Pour the mixture over the cooked potatoes.
Mix the remaining 1/4 cup of butter with the breadcrumbs (or cornflakes) and sprinkle over top of the casserole. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until hot and bubbly.