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No Picnic

Discovering Utah Food proves to be a unique exercise in assimilation and tolerance.



Where I grew up, Green Jell-O was a really bad metal band that mutilated a fairy tale by combining screaming guitars with a toneless falsetto. Dining in Utah meant family road-trips “home” to grandmother’s house for a meal of dolmathes, keftethes and spanakopita. Then, just hours later, down the road to the next grandmother’s house for pilafi, pastitso and baklava.

My family took a vacation to the other homeland, Greece, around the time Green Jell-O—who later had to change their name to Green Jelly because of a lawsuit—was topping the Billboard charts. It was there that I learned to forego the meat-laden pastitso and keftethes in favor of my current diet, which my beloved Greek uncles and brothers refer to as “rabbit food.” Unorthodox, I know. But something about a fly-covered lamb carcass hanging from its hooves took the pleasure out of souvlaki.

Eight years later, I’ve braved the threat of six homemade Greek meals a day (horrid, I know) to spend some time with the family and fancy myself a reporter (OK, so the staff box says intern. I take what I can get). Dragging my Erin Brockovich-wannabe self to Brother Brigham’s polygamic paradise has proved a bit disconcerting (This is the place?), but I figure it’s one of those “when in Rome” things. Thus, the true experience of Utahdom requires shedding the safe haven of feta and phyllo for a literal taste of Utah culture.

“Chuck-a-Rama” was the prophetic cry of Salt Lake’s culturally assimilated, so to Chuck-a-Rama I went. I ambled through the roped-off maze of a waiting area toward the cashier, followed by an elderly couple who presented Chuck-a-Rama frequent diner cards as payment. As I sat down, I observed another elderly woman, wearing what can only be described as a shift, reach into her purse and pull out a sky blue cylinder labeled “salt substitute.”

The exhilaration was just beginning. I was truly awestruck by the melee of entrees with which I was confronted as I charged forward with my plate and silverware like a knight with a sword and shield. I confess, what amazes me most about Utah food is the unsettling combination of two (or more) not-so-great tastes that by no stretch of the imagination go great together. I guess such things are usually categorized as “salads” when they’re cold and “casseroles” or “bakes” when heated. You’ll notice I didn’t say cooked.

Now perhaps it’s just my experience as an alternative college student most recently from California, but I usually assume that calling something a salad presumes the presence of lettuce, spinach or at least some kind of vegetable. Chuck-a-Rama caught me off guard with its liberal definition, and I found myself wondering, “If I eat frog-eye salad, am I still technically a vegetarian?” This gripping self-scrutiny was short-lived, as I fell back on one of my most troublesome personality traits—my sense of adventure overwhelming and ultimately overpowering my moral code.

I have tried everything from raw sea urchin to pork rinds to a damned spicy Afro-Brazilian soup, based solely on the characteristic that killed the cat. At Jeannie’s Lunchroom, there’s a burger so big and full of flesh it’s called a “No Way.” I have admittedly developed a fascination with foods I have deemed morally unconscionable. So I figured a small sampling of the tuna bake at Chuck-a-Rama was not really much of a setback to the anti-corporate conservationist animal rights movement, and scooped some of the goo onto my plate. Well, I’m not dead. But I’d take sea urchin over that mess of cheese and what must have been mayonnaise coating the conglomerate chunk of chicken-of-the-sea and green beans. Not for me, thanks. But I did sort of secretly dig the frog-eye stuff.

Now as much as I may try to escape my roots, I actually am a Utah native. Up until I was 4 years old, my lot was cast in a place absent from the map that I’m convinced is called Bennion. I have few memories of the time, but a little flicker of association came when I drove by a massive orange sign with a rolling pin logo. It’s true, The Sconecutter was comfort food back in the days I had elbows banged from tricycle stuntry.

I think there must have been a Sconecutter near the pediatrician’s office, because immediately after walking in the double glass doors, I was struck by the feeling that even though I felt sick, I was in for a treat. It’s funny how smells can do that to a person. I was soothed by the random chords of some early ’80s chick rock as I ordered a wheat cinnamon honey-butter scone. As I waited for my treat, I checked out the jukebox, which housed decades’ worth of legendary artists like Supertramp and Green Day.

I sat down kitty-corner to a couple speaking sign language, envying their ability to talk with their mouths full. A visored blonde bounced over to my table and plopped down a tray with what looked like two end-pieces of sliced and slightly-heated bread. Now, I just have to know, what is the thrill? I could just as easily fry two pieces of Wonder bread and slop some honey and cinnamon on them. But why would I do such a thing? Why?

Still, I would have given anything for The Sconecutter six years ago when my high school pals and I drove around aimlessly seeking entertainment. I’ve no doubt that some pony-tailed friend of mine would have had the late night drive-through shift and could easily have been talked into “temporarily” providing us all with “Let’s Get Sconed” T-shirts. So, on behalf of Salt Lake’s bored and cynical sophomores who just got their driver’s licenses, I’m grateful for The Sconecutter.

The final adventure in Utah food was a jaunt to the Iceberg for my cousin Pete’s first birthday. In true Utah form, aunts, uncles, grandmother and cousins piled out of the family vehicles (plural) and through the entrance of the latest and greatest ice cream store. Now, I have to say that of all places I have experienced the frozen malt, Utah tops the list. I mean, I guess you have to get the malt flavoring somehow. But the Iceberg was a tad extreme.

As I struggled to transport the tray of “large” milkshakes from the counter to the Formica tabletop, I vowed to join a gym as soon as possible. Not because of the high caloric content of the malt I was about to consume, but because of the humiliation I felt at my inability to lug what was apparently my own weight in ice cream a distance of 10 feet.

Upon reaching the table, I crumbled into a seat and was simultaneously bludgeoned by the birthday boy’s plastic spoon. I watched my uncle beg my 3-year-old cousin for a bite of her ice cream as the rest of my family chatted about the weather and golf and church. In other corners of the restaurant, tow-headed siblings and parents partook of similar rituals.

I was struck by something, besides the spoon. Eating might not be the practice most Utahns have in common with rabbits. But hey, I can get into that family values thing. Provided it’s fair and equal and tolerant and all that other stuff I’m supposed to stand for as a twenty-something college student. And besides, if I start to miss my whacked-out, drama-driven bisexual vegan activist friends, I can always go to Bluekats.