General conference is a time for spiritual feasting - inspiring messages fill the soul as much as food satisfies the body. Emphasis is rightly given to the spiritual food set before congregations, but the fare on the prophets' tables also holds a great deal of interest.
What kind of food has sustained the Church presidents?Many have preferred a simple supper of a thick, crusty slab of homemade bread - preferably wheat - saturated with fresh, cold milk.
But some have added individual touches: President Ezra Taft Benson prefers to garnish his bowl with green onions, while President Harold B. Lee accented his with cheese, the sharper the better. President Spencer W. Kimball even ordered bread and milk at an elegant restaurant in Quito, Ecuador. His wife, Camilla, once told a Church News reporter that suppers of bread and milk were as satisfying to them as a feast.
President Wilford Woodruff related in his journals that crumbled cheese and green onions were most frequently used, but apple chunks or green grapes sometimes topped the bread for variety. President George Albert Smith was known to graciously decline gourmet entrees in favor of bread and milk.
Of course, bread and milk are not the only favorite foods of Church leaders. Still, tastes do tend to run on the simple side. Helen Goates, daughter of President Lee, offered an explanation for the popularity of the humble supper:
"Few people understood the rigorous schedule the prophets maintained. At the end of a strenuous day of meetings or after arriving home late from a travel schedule, food had to be simple and quick. During conference visits, the wonderful sisters of the Church fed the General Authorities their richest and tastiest recipes. Bread and milk was a quick, yet refreshing contrast."
President Benson discovered another kind of milk while attending graduate school in Ames, Iowa. The frugal student noticed others carrying empty quart jars to school and soon discovered buttermilk was free to students. He didn't like buttermilk but because his food budget was only $20 a month he grew to enjoy the thick, creamy beverage.
A food bargain was never wasted in the Benson home.
Benson family members remember the winter of the plums. After a season when the future Church president found a deal he couldn't pass up, the plum canning began, and every time the family turned around there was a "plum something" to eat.
Recalling the thrifty days of his childhood, President Benson said, "We would come into the kitchen and get the aroma of baking bread, then we would persuade mother to let us take the top off the loaf, put butter on it and consume it in our hands."
Although President Benson's mother baked a dozen loaves at a time, she sometimes ran out of bread and would buy a loaf. The store-bought bread, said President Benson's father, tasted "like cotton." If she didn't buy a loaf to stretch the family's bread supply, she would make what the family called Lumpy Dick by stirring whole wheat flour into hot milk and it would make into a consistency of pudding. She would sometimes put cinnamon and maybe a little sugar on top of it and pour cold milk over it. "This would be our supper, and it was delicious," recalled President Benson.
These days, President Benson has a fondness for burnt almond fudge ice cream. Another of his favorites is his wife Flora's lemon meringue pie. When he was a member of the Council of the Twelve and on assignment in Europe after World War II, he longed for the familiar taste of the pie. He tried to teach the German sisters how to make the pie. Eventually he received the official recipe from Sister Benson.
Luxuries such as lemon meringue pie were limited in the early days of the Church. Finding food was not always easy.
Joseph Smith's family had cornmeal Johnny Cakes so often that one of his children, in asking the blessing on the food, made a special request: "Something better, please, for the next meal."
Brigham Young, a borderline vegetarian, ate amply from garden produce; he especially liked strawberries.
He ate only two meals a day, but they were substantial. At breakfast, for example, he often downed cornmeal mush, hot doughnuts with syrup, codfish gravy, and a roasted squab from the pigeon house. He gave popcorn an original twist by burying it in a bowl of rich milk and eating it like cereal.
President John Taylor, known to have a sweet tooth, was a force in getting the sugar beet industry established in Utah.
Desserts, or any other food, for that matter, seldom deterred President Wilford Woodruff. A prolific journal keeper, he noted, "Whenever I heard Joseph Smith preach, teach or prophesy, I always felt it my duty to write it. I felt uneasy and could not eat, drink or sleep until I'd written."
Lorenzo Snow, in the deprivation of Winter Quarters, learned extraordinary resourcefulness. He organized groups of men to find work in adjoining communities. The men worked, not for a monetary wage, but for any sort of food staple they could gather.
Anchoring the supper menu at the Beehive House when Joseph F. Smith was prophet, was bread and milk, this time with a slice of cheese. The House served this dinner to frequent guests, tourists and dignitaries alike.
Heber J. Grant's widowed mother could afford few luxuries but even her limited pantry included the makings for molasses candy, a taffy-type confection. President Grant became so accustomed to the molasses flavor, he could not enjoy any chocolate dessert.
President George Albert Smith ate boiled wheat, preferring whole wheat rather than cracked. He ate it like a cereal with cream and honey. His grandson, George, recalled the long supper hour waiting for his grandfather to finish chewing a whole bowl of wheat.
Although a fan of bread and milk, President David O. McKay also enjoyed the best of homemade cooking. According to Suzanne McKay Adams, the prophet's granddaughter, President McKay's wife, Emma Ray Riggs McKay, was widely known for her homemade pies and cakes. President McKay's favorite was a custard pie.
Desserts at President Joseph Fielding Smith's home included homemade mincemeat. In a holiday tradition in the Smith family, the prophet ground the meat and fruit to make old-fashioned pie filling.
Amelia Smith McConkie, President Smith's daughter, remembers him filling the children up with a hearty breakfast. "I think Dad got tired of milk and cereal. Every now and again he would get up early and make breakfast. We would have sausage with cream gravy, then biscuits with our cooked cereal. It was a farm-type breakfast, enough to stoke you up for the whole day."
Cheese was always on the menu at President Harold B. Lee's home. He ate cheese with his ice cream, with his breakfast, with almost everything. His daughter, Helen, recalled, "Mother prepared an elegant white cake smothered with a cream topping and fresh berries. It was a new recipe and she was anxious for his response. After two bites Dad joked, `It would be just perfect if I had a little piece of cheese to go along with it.' "
Just perfect for the Kimball children, who grew up under strained economic circumstances, was the family joke about "the meat being sweeter right next to the bones." The children would laugh, then pick the bones cleaner.
Young Spencer Kimball seldom had store-bought candy or ice cream, but he and his wife, Camilla, and their children churned freezer after freezer of homemade ice cream.
The Kimballs were definitely meat and potatoes folks. A pot roast with vegetables was President Kimball's favorite dinner, but a toasted cheese sandwich or dependable bread and milk ran a close second.
Times change. Recipe ingredients come and go. Health and nutrition concerns differ through the years. One thing that doesn't change is the bread and milk; the traditional Mormon supper still satisfies many an unassuming diner, prophet or not.
*** Thanks to family members for their assistance in preparing this story. Appreciation is also extended to Sheri Dew and Edward Kimball for their biographical research on Presidents Benson and Kimball, as well as the Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook for some of the recipe selections.
- Joseph Smith's Johnny Cakes
3 cups cornmeal
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons molasses
3 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, well beaten Sift together the dry ingredients. Slowly stir in the molasses and buttermilk and mix well. Add the beaten eggs and beat hard for 2 minutes. Pour into shallow, well-greased pans and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
** From Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook.
Brigham Young's Buttermilk Doughnuts
1 quart buttermilk
21/2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons butter
3 teaspoons nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Flour Combine ingredients, kneading in enough flour to make a soft dough, not too sticky. Roll out and cut into doughnuts. Fry in deep hot lard (substitute oil).
** From Emily Partridge Young, quoted in Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook.
John Taylor's Applesauce Cake
3 cups sugar
11/2 cups shortening
1/4 cup water
3 cups applesauce
6 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
11/2 teaspoons nutmeg
4 tablespoons cocoa
2 cups raisins
1 package gum drops
1 cup nuts Cream sugar and shortening. Stir soda into cold water and add to applesauce. Let foam up, then add to other ingredients. Mix with flour, spices, cocoa. Fold in raisins, nuts and gumdrops. Bake in loaf tins at 350 degrees for 11/2 hours.
** From Elenorah D. Taylor, quoted from Winifred Jardine.
Cherry Nut Cake
of Wilford Woodruff's day
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
3 egg yolks
1 cup sweet milk
3 cups sifted flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 egg whites
1 cup chopped cherries
1 cup blanched and chopped nuts Cream sugar with butter; add egg yolks and milk. Stir in dry ingredients, then beaten egg whites. Add cherries and nuts. Bake in small tins (350 degrees; time depends on pan size). Ice with vanilla icing.
** From Women's Exponent during Wilford Woodruff's administration.
Lorenzo Snow's Yorkshire Pudding
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flour
Pinch of salt
Beat egg lightly. Sift flour and salt. Gradually add milk, mixing carefully to prevent lumps. Put about 1 teaspoon drippings from roast in cup of each muffintin. Place muffin tin in very hot oven until sizzling. Then fill each cup half full with batter and bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
** From Mrs. Lyndon Daynes Snow, quoted in Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook.
Joseph F. Smith's Custard Pie
1 unbaked pie crust
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
Generous sprinkling of nutmeg
(No vanilla) Put milk in bowl. Beat eggs and strain through fine sieve into bowl of milk. Add sugar, salt and nutmeg. Stir well and pour into pie shell. Bake at 375 degrees until knife just barely comes out clean. Do not overcook or custard becomes watery.
** Mrs. Emily Smith Walker, quoted in Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook.
Heber J. Grant's Christmas Fig Pudding
2 pounds white dried figs
8 cups soft bread crumbs
4 cups brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 pound ground suet
3 tablespoons molasses
4 tablespoons flour
3 teaspoons grated nutmeg
Juice of 4 lemons
8 eggs Grind figs in meat grinder. Mix with all other ingredients except eggs. Beat egg yolks and egg whites separately. Stir in yolks, then fold in whites at the last. Thoroughly grease five 1-pound cans and fill 2/3 full. Steam for 3 hours.
** From Mrs. Frances Grant Bennett, daughter of President Grant.
George Albert Smith's Oyster Stew
1 quart oysters
2 cups oyster liquid
2 cups rich milk
4 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup diced celery, partially cooked Strain oyster liquid, thoroughly wash oysters and add to oyster liquid. Place over heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add milk and heat thoroughly but do not allow to boil. Add butter, salt, pepper and celery. Thicken with a little flour and water, if desired.
** From Mrs. Edith Smith Elliot, quoted in Salt Lake 18th Ward Cookbook.
David O. McKay's Baked Apples
6 apples, washed and center cored
3/4 cup brown, white or maple sugar
Butter Fill apple centers with 2 tablespoons sugar, sprinkling a little over the outside. Then, sprinkle with lemon juice and cinnamon; dot with butter. Place in deep casserole with a lid. Add enough water to cover bottom of baking dish. Cover and bake at 375 degrees, about 35 minutes or until tender. Remove apples and boil remaining syrup until thick. Pour syrup and thick cream over apples when served. (If apples are baked in open pan, uncovered, it is necessary to baste them during cooking.)
** Mrs. Emma Rae McKay Ashton, from Suzanne McKay Adams, granddaughter of President McKay.
Joseph Fielding Smith's Sherbet
2 quarts water
5 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 quart whipping cream
2 quarts rich milk
6 oranges, juiced
2 lemons, juiced
1 1-pound can crushed pineapple
3-4 bananas, mashed Combine sugar, salt, cornstarch and water. Cook until clear, then cool. Add whipping cream and milk. Add orange juice and lemon juice, also crushed pineapple and mashed bananas. Pour into 6-quart freezer and freeze.
** From Amelia Smith McConkie, daughter of President Smith.
Harold B. Lee's Boiled Raisin Cake
2 cups raisins
2 cups water
11/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1 cup nuts, chopped (optional) Place raisins, water, sugar and shortening in heavy saucepan; bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Cool and add sifted, dry ingredients. Blend in nuts and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes in a greased 9x13-inch pan. When cool, frost with favorite vanilla frosting.
** From Helen Lee Goates, daughter of President Lee.
Spencer W. Kimball's
1 3-ounce package lemon gelatin powder
1 cup water
1 cup evaporated milk, whipped
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 pound butter
28 graham crackers, crushed
1 cup whipping cream, whipped and sweetened
1-2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries Dissolve gelatin in hot water; cool and blend in whipped evaporated milk.
Beat softened cream cheese with sugar. Gently blend gelatin mixture with cream cheese and fold in lemon juice.
Melt butter and blend in with cracker crumbs. Place half crumbs on bottom of 9x13-inch pan. Pour cheesecake mixture on top and sprinkle with remaining crumbs. Chill at least 3 hours to set. Serve with whipped cream and fresh or frozen raspberries. Makes 10-12 servings.
** From Olive Kimball Mack, daughter of President Kimball.
Ezra Taft Benson's Lemon Meringue Pie
Lemon rind from 2 lemons
3 cups sugar plus 2-3 tablespoons
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
5 eggs, separated
Juice of 2 lemons
4 cups water
1 9-inch baked pie crust Grate outside rind of two lemons; add sugar, flour and cornstarch. Stir in egg yolks, then water and lemon juice. On medium heat, stir constantly until the mixture is thickened. Pour into pie crust.
Make meringue with stiffly beaten egg whites and 3 tablespoons sugar. Bake at 425-450 degrees for 3-5 minutes, or until lightly browned.
** From Flora Benson, wife of President Benson.