OGDEN — Forget about ketchup.
Get that boring bottle of mustard out of here.
For Blake Miller of Ogden, it’s all about fry sauce, a mix of ketchup, mayonnaise and other ingredients that holds a special place in Utah’s food scene.
“It just tastes better on fries. I like it on hamburgers. I like it on pretty much everything,” he says, waiting to place an order at Kirt’s Family Drive Inn, a North Ogden fast-food eatery that features the condiment. “Other states are making a mistake in not trying fry sauce.”
“That’s very specific to Utah,” said Peery King, operator of The Greenery, a long-time Ogden restaurant that offers up its own distinctive Utah food item, Mormon muffins, based on a recipe handed down by his pioneer forebears.
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But Utah’s culinary offerings hardly stop with the pinkish condiment, which gives ketchup a run for its money among diehard Utahns like Miller. Think green Jell-O salad and funeral potatoes, rooted in the strong presence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the state.
“When I think of Utah food, it’s just kind of this hodgepodge of stuff,” said Irvin Maddox, operator of the Maddox Ranch House in Perry, an institution that’s been around since 1949.
The unique offerings, however, aren’t limited to comfort foods, sugary or other fare high in carbohydrates that evoke childhood, though those seem to rank high.
Alex Montanez, operator of Rovali’s, an Italian restaurant on Historic 25th Street, sees innovation among the many eateries along the downtown Ogden street and elsewhere in the state. His restaurant periodically experiments with new dishes, like Italian tacos, aiming to keep things fresh.
“Utah is, in my opinion, changing as far as not being comfortable with the old standbys,” Montanez said, noting the varied tastes offered by 25th Street restaurants. “I think that’s what’s kind of making us a destination point.”
What’s more, Utah’s agricultural sector is the source for many Utah food items, though the recipes may not be exclusive to Utah. Peaches grown in northern Utah, for instance, are fodder for late summer peach pies and peach shakes offered at eateries in the zone. The Maddox Ranch House serves hundreds of thousands of turkey steaks each year, among many other unique offerings, and, like many restaurants, incorporates Utah-grown goods into its recipes as much as it can, according to Maddox.
That said, Utah is far from an agricultural powerhouse, at least relative to output from other U.S. states. Receipts for agricultural commodities coming from the state totaled $1.66 billion in 2016, 37th among the 50 states and 0.5 percent of the U.S. total, according to U.S. Department of Agricultural stats. California, by comparison, sits atop the list, with $45.33 billion in receipts, 12.9 percent of the U.S. total.
Tart cherries, perhaps, rank as one of the most singular agricultural products coming from the state. Utah was the second biggest producer of the fruit in 2016, according to the USDA, trailing only Michigan.
Tart cherries are used to make cherry raisins and sometimes they’re covered in chocolate or yogurt to make snacks, according to Shawn Olsen, a Utah State University Extension agent in Farmington. “The tart cherry industry is huge down in Utah County,” he said.
One thing Utah doesn’t produce in great abundance is honey, at least not relative to the rest of the country, the state’s Beehive State nickname notwithstanding. According to USDA figures, Utah ranked 30th among the 50 states in honey production in 2016, with receipts here representing 0.6 percent of total U.S. receipts for the commodity. North Dakota topped the list, accounting for 19.7 percent of receipts.
Brown sugar, honey, corn syrup
Arctic Circle, the fast-food chain launched in Salt Lake City in 1950, lays claim to the invention of fry sauce. “There is only one original fry Sauce and Arctic Circle has it,” the company’s website reads.
But given its popularity, versions are spread far and wide across the state. Maddox Ranch House offers up its own take. “I don’t call it fry sauce but it’s pretty darn close,” Maddox said. “I offer it because people want it.”
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Maddox, like Kirt’s reps, won’t give away the restaurant’s secret, but he says every locale’s version typically has some sort of sweetener in it — brown sugar, honey, corn syrup or granulated sugar. And that gets to another idiosyncrasy of Utah tastes — a hankering for sweet stuff.
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“I think a lot of people have a real sweet tooth,” King said, noting the popularity of the carrot cake, Mormon muffins and other sweets at The Greenery. “I think just sweet in general — candy and everything with sugar in it — is popular in Utah.”
Maddox echoed that and, like others, links the seeming taste for sweet stuff to the Mormon tradition in the state, more particularly, LDS admonishments against alcohol consumption. If Mormons don’t drink booze, they compensate for it in sugar consumption.
“My dad used to say we don’t have a liquor license, we have a sugar license,” Maddox said. He once asked his dad about the notion of serving alcohol at Maddox Ranch House and his father’s response was to the point: “Let’s try to sell them something sweet.”
Ice cream and cream pies are big at the restaurant and when the microbrewery craze started developing in the United States in the late 1990s, the locale, while eschewing beer, started brewing its own non-alcoholic concoctions — root beer, cream soda and sarsaparilla. An offshoot of that can be seen in the growth since just 2010 in soda shops, places like FiiZ and Sodalicious that sell sugary beverages, mixes of soda, syrup, whipped cream and more. That’s another uniquely Utah food thing.
“It’s kind of like the Utah version of Starbucks. Man, those places are popular and they’re all over,” Maddox said.
Green Jell-O, funeral potatoes
Of course, LDS views aren’t the only church influence on culinary tastes here.
Green Jell-O salads and funeral potatoes are popular and common at church functions, and, for many, have come to typify Utah food. To be sure, no decree states that LDS members shall consume copious quantities of Jell-O or funeral potatoes, casseroles heavy on spuds and cheese.
“It wasn’t part of pioneer Utah at all,” said Brock Cheney, author of a book about the food of Utah’s pioneers, “Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers,” and an English teacher at Box Elder Middle School in Brigham City. He did plenty of research for his book, he said, and there was no mention of funeral potatoes in the recipes dating to Brigham Young’s day.
Indeed, he maintains that Utah is hardly the only place for such food — go to a potluck meal at a Methodist or Lutheran church in the Midwest, say, and you may find some sort of Jell-O salad or potato casserole.
Similarly, what are dubbed scones in Utah — essentially deep-fried bread — are hardly unique here. “If you were to go any other place, they’d call it a fritter,” Cheney said, or elephant ears or fry bread. “Scone is not the right word.”
Still, things like funeral potatoes hold a special place in Utah. A Salt Lake City bar and grill, The Garage, offers its own version — hush puppy-sized clumps, deep fried in oil.
“It is definitely our top item,” said Walt Nesbit, a bartender at the locale. “Most people say eating our fry potatoes is a religious experience.”
Montanez, operator of Rovali’s, appreciates them. “As long as I can add Tabasco (sauce) to them, boom, I’m happy,” he said.
Likewise, Utah lawmakers in 2001 passed a resolution declaring Jell-O “a favorite snack of Utah,” noting that the gelatine brand, often mixed with fruit, carrots, marshmallows and more, was “a traditional favorite” in the state. The action, solidifying Jell-O’s association with Utah, stemmed in part from extensive media coverage at the time of light-hearted efforts in Salt Lake City to wrest the title as biggest consumer of the gelatine brand from Des Moines, Iowa.
But Cheney, for one, suspects much of the food eaten in Utah doesn’t stray far from the eclectic mix of meat and potatoes and international fare consumed in other places across the country. A modern LDS Relief Society cookbook, offering a glimpse into the eating habits of many in Utah, would probably contain such staples as lasagna and stir fry vegetables, hardly anything out of place at many other U.S. dinner tables.
“It would have the run of the mill hearty fare you would find anyplace else,” Cheney said.
Back at Kirt’s, the Ogden drive-in that goes through more fry sauce than ketchup, Miller doesn’t get too philosophical or analytical about what is or isn’t unique about Utah food. He grew up with fry sauce and wants it when he gets a burger and fries.
“Maybe it is a Utah thing. But I just expect fry sauce. Hope for fry sauce,” he said.