Pioneer Day and food preservation are essential to Utah’s culture, which is intricately tied to the customs and calendar of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormon Church. Family and community gatherings — often potlucks, picnics and barbecues — are often also religious affairs.
Pioneer Day, the official state holiday celebrated July 24th, commemorates the day in 1847 that the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley after leaving Illinois in the wake of the murder of their leader Joseph Smith. The day is often celebrated with large family gatherings around food.
The tradition of Jell-O salads at these events is particularly Utah. After World War II, there was increased demand for processed and easily prepared foods. Jell-O marketers found the jiggly dessert a perfect home in the state with the highest birthrates and consequently the most children to enjoy it. In 2001 Jell-O became the official state food of Utah with only two dissenting votes, and in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Salt Lake City, Utah and Des Moines, Iowa, were embroiled in a heated battle for the title of highest per capita Jell-O sales. The iconic symbolism of Jell-O was further preserved in the commemorative Utah Green Jell-O Olympics pins for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Here Jen Osland recounts her memories of Pioneer Day (and yes, they involve Jell-O), and talks of her mother and aunts gathering to can the fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens, another common practice in large families. One principle of the Mormon religion is self-reliance, such as home food storage of non-perishable foods that can feed the family for three months to a year.
The image of Jen’s mother and aunts sitting and canning for days is the kind of industriousness that earned the state its nickname – the Beehive State. The beehive is the symbol of the Mormon Church, again illustrating the connection in Utah between church and state – and food.
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