“Jane’s Casserole” was my mother’s go-to contribution to Boy Scout picnics, neighborhood parties, potlucks, and sometimes even a casual family meal. It was distinctive, a standout in her repertoire. I learned early that it was named for the woman who gave it to my mom; a neighbor so important to us that my baby sister was given the middle name Jane. Then one day I noticed something at a church dinner, just the sort of place where Jane’s Casserole almost always put in an appearance. What I noticed was the dish’s cousins: dishes that my increasing sophistication allowed me to see were the very same recipe, only done by other moms, using their own preferred ingredients. Instead of shell macaroni, elbow. The hamburger cooked to a darker color or the vegetable cut differently. In the San Francisco suburbs where I grew up, we didn’t have “Ward Cookbooks”; we had Sunset Magazine, which is probably where that casserole came from. But the phenomenon was the same, if the mechanism was different.
Daniel George’s deep dive into LDS ward cooking and ward cookbooks, aptly titled Marrow, generously fills the small gallery space behind All Wall, the major exhibition in the large space at UMOCA. It’s tiny by comparison with the seven billboard–sized murals of All Wall, but I suspect a lot more hard work went into Marrow. Daniel George first collected no less than 63 actual ward cookbooks, the covers of which he photographed as a kind of glossary of the real work that followed. He then cooked an unknown number of the recipes they contain, which he photographed in the sort of high-gloss style that is often disparaged by amateurs who have never tried it and have no idea of how difficult it is. It’s enough to make a viewer wonder how many artists get to know their subjects so well before producing a highly personal vision of them. Included are a dozen portraits of the highly specialized and very individualized utensils with which these menus are prepared and served.
Marrow operates on a remarkable number of levels. First of all, it surveys a major, but largely neglected feature of dietary reality. Unlike, say, Bon Appetit, the extinct Gourmet, or the Food Section of any large newspaper, Ward cooking isn’t about originality so much as it’s about individual variation of proven favorites. Try to imagine the New York Times printing a “new” recipe for Funeral Potatoes. But Marrow is also an elaborate excursion into nostalgia: into the comfort and security of recalling good food shared, often — as the potatoes will suggest — under less-than-happy circumstances. If there’s a more important role for art in our lives, I haven’t come across it.
But diving further into it, Marrow offers a chance to consciously explore one of the most important skills we possess; one we humans share with many animals, but have developed to a much higher level. That is the ability to, first, create variations on something we have come to value. Whether it’s the recipe for a favorite edible, the house we live in, the furniture we fill it with, the car we drive, or almost anything we own or use — including the typeface 15 Bytes appears in, which you may choose to change to one that meets your idea of what is best or easiest to read — we have more choices than we consciously consider. But if anything, even more important is the ability to reverse the process: to recognize our cell phone as both a cell phone and ours, to read the address numbers on the front of the place we’re seeking, and to know our loved ones despite their having changed clothes.
And, of course, to recognize the food we eat, and especially the foods we prefer, no matter who cooked them or how. And by extension, to know our people — the cosmic version of our Ward, but also the local, everyday version — and realize when we are at home.
Daniel George: Marrow, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 23.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.