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When someone is hurting—from loss or tragedy—we want to provide comfort, sustenance. It’s a gut reaction. As shock turns into ravenous grief, stuffed containers and pots and pans help fill the void.
In Mormon culture, comfort comes in the form of potatoes mixed with cheese, a cream-based soup, and sour cream, topped with more cheese and crushed cornflakes, then baked. While no one was thinking of sensitivity when naming the dish, “funeral potatoes” are a warm hug in 9 x 13-inch clothing.
I first heard of funeral potatoes, also called cheesy potatoes, from my grandma. An active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, she often volunteers with her local Relief Society to bring trays of food to the dinners that traditionally follow a burial.
“It runs like clockwork,” she told me. “We ask how many people are coming—50? 200? I’ve only ever been to one or two funerals that have run out of food.”
Grieving families don’t have to pay for these dinners—each community's Relief Society has a budget, and volunteers sign up to make staples like ham, Jell-Os, and casseroles, each with a personal touch.
I couldn’t pinpoint a specific date when funeral potatoes began populating Mormon gatherings, although a similarly named but unaffiliated casserole also appears in parts of the American South. Both my grandma and my aunt, who makes the dish regularly for her church community, described discovering the warm, cheesy bites at funerals in the '70s.
My aunt makes her funeral potatoes by simply mixing together the seasonings, hash browns, condensed chicken soup, sour cream, and cheese in a large bowl. She then spreads the mixture into a 9 x 13-inch baking pan, tops with more cheese, and bakes at 350° F until golden and bubbly (about an hour).
Funeral potatoes lovingly accept a range of changes and substitutions, and recipes differ from family to family: They can include fresh potatoes or preshredded hash browns, sour cream or yogurt or full-fat cream, all sorts of creamed soups like mushroom or chicken or even more potato, and it doesn’t matter if it’s butter-drenched cornflakes or bread crumbs that get golden and crispy on top.
Neither my aunt nor my grandma can remember how many times they’ve made funeral potatoes over the past couple of decades. They all bleed into a gigantic batch. But one thing is clear, as they describe stories of bringing tin-foil-wrapped casserole dishes to gatherings large and small: Funeral potatoes are just the thing to heal the hurting.
- 6 tablespoons butter, divided
- 3/4 cup onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 12 small potatoes, parboiled and shredded, or one (30-ounce) bag of frozen, shredded hash brown potatoes, thawed
- One 10.5-ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
- 1 cup sour cream, or plain Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
- 2 cups firmly packed shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided
- 1 1/2 cups crushed cornflake cereal or panko bread crumbs
Have you ever had funeral potatoes? What’s a recipe that brings you comfort in tough times?