Late last January, in a restaurant in Barolo, a small Piedmontese village near in Bra, the home of Slow Food, the chef was glumly predicting a thirsty couple of weeks ahead. Part of a delegation of Piedmontese chefs, he was soon to be flying to Salt Lake City, Utah, the venue for the ongoing 2002 Winter Olympics. They were to promote their region’s cooking and host a number of dinners in honor of the 2006 Games, to be held in the Piedmont capital, Turin.
Salt Lake City also happens to be the headquarters of the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS). Mormonism is the world’s fastest growing religion and is perhaps best known for its anti-alcohol stance and 60,000-strong international army of clean-cut missionary doorknockers. Have Bible will travel.
The church of LDS practically controls the city, and the state is one of the most right-wing in the country. The religion’s world headquarters sits on 35 acres of prime Salt Lake City real estate, and 70% of the state’s residents are counted among its members, including most of its elected officials, judges and leaders.
Our chef isn’t the only one who felt a little thirsty at the thought of an Olympics in Utah. Journalists around the world have wondered how the influx of sportspeople and spectators would cope with Utah’s strict alcohol regulations. But, like so many religions, Mormonism is often misunderstood. Or perhaps it’s the LDS hold on the city that is misinterpreted. Just because Salt Lake City is practically controlled by the LDS, doesn’t mean you can’t get a drink here. You just have to work for it.
An Olympic Games tend to hurtle their host cities into the spotlight (ready or not) and Utah came under particular scrutiny when the Games begin on February 8. Mormons have always been a mystery to the non-converted, whose general impression of the LDS usually involves stories of puritan cults and/or depressing documentaries of polyamorous octogenarians living in camper colonies with teenage wives and scores of children.
Indeed, many LDS’ beliefs are politically incorrect and PR-unfriendly. Mormon society is highly paternalistic; women exist in the church to serve their husbands; homosexuality is not accepted and neither is abortion. The church endorsed polygamy until 1890, and many Mormon fundamentalists continue to take more than one wife. Estimates of the number of polygamous marriages in Utah range from 30,000 to 100,000; they include the notorious case of Tom Green, the 52-year-old convicted of bigamy and currently awaiting trail.
All this and the mixed press it has brought to Utah is exactly why the city is so pleased to be hosting the Olympics. Soon after it was announced that Salt Lake City would be hosting the games, Gordon B. Hinckley, the Mormons’ 92-year-old president spoke to the press in the words of one of the church’s early leaders, claiming, ‘kings and emperors and the noble and wise of the earth will visit here, while the wicked and ungodly will envy us our comfortable homes and possessions’. For the Games, Mormons have taken every precaution to ensure a softly, softly approach to visitor education and, shhh, conversion.
The church is being careful not to overwhelm visitors to what has been dubbed the Mormon Olympics with its customary zeal. Members volunteering at historical sites throughout the city have been given ‘civility training’ with an aim to quell the enthusiastic LDS impulse to convert, and late last year the president of the Olympic Organizing committee, himself a Mormon, held a press conference to play down the religious aspect of the games.
But it’s the Mormon attitude to alcohol and food that’s really attracting the media’s attention. According to LDS beliefs, God gave a law of health in 1833, commonly known as the Word of Wisdom, which advises against the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and illegal drugs. Mormons believe that we are to respect and care for our bodies and that exercise, proper eating and sleeping habits and a cheerful attitude all contribute to our happiness.
According to The Word of Wisdom, ‘strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies. And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill. And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly’. Food and diet are thus an integral part of the Mormon faith, which has developed various diet plans to help believers remain healthy of mind and body. In ‘Mormon Wisdom and Health’, Dr Kenneth Johnson states that, ‘the bright light of recent scientific and medical advances is focusing new attention on the nutritional aspects of the Word of Wisdom.’ Basically, Johnson’s book encourages a diet rich in cereals, legumes and grains, some meats and a good dose of fruits and vegetables when in season. ’By following all the tenets of the Word of Wisdom,’ he promises, ‘a longer and healthier life with great temporal and spiritual blessings is assured. In addition you will look better, feel better, save money and lose excess weight.’
In deference to the Mormon belief in good health through diet and exercise, ‘Salt Lake overall is a traditional, comfortable, steak-and-potatoes kind of a place’ (Kate Duffy, ‘The Insider’s Guide to Salt Lake City’). Family is everything here and the dining scene is dominated by inexpensive chain restaurants, steak houses serving huge portions, and a fair smattering of those all-you-can-eat joints.
There’s also a handful of upmarket restaurants where the flavors are complex, the menus sophisticated, and the prices high. The most well-known is owned and operated by the group Gastronomy Inc, which opened the first private club in 1978 and now employs 700 people all conspiring to weave around Utah’s complicated alcohol laws.
According to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s website, ‘the state does not promote or encourage the sale or use of alcohol.’ That said, alcohol is available throughout Salt Lake City. Most restaurants have a liquor license allowing patrons to order mixed drinks, wine or beer but only with food and only after midday and before midnight. Low alcohol beer can be purchased at grocery stores, convenience stores, and most restaurants and taverns. To buy regular beer and ‘hard’ alcohol, you must go to one of the 37 State Liquor Stores. Private clubs serve beer, wine and mixed drinks from 10am to 1am, but for entry to these establishments you must be a member.
Despite the considerable Mormon representation in the halls of power, on the ground Utah is changing and Salt Lake City is becoming increasingly secularized. There are cafes and tobacconists, but not on every corner. There are specialist bars, which serve over 50 kinds of beer, posh wine bars where businessmen rack up expense accounts and coffee shops where students drink cappuccinos. The mayor has personally taken journalists on late night tours of the city to prove that bars do sell alcohol.
These Olympic Games are not only a chance for the city to display its geographic and cultural attractions to the world, but also its emerging gastronomic scene. A growing number of progressive restaurateurs are opening around the clock and the young chefs of Utah are hoping to make their mark on the visitor’s palates with brave fusion food and imaginative menus.
But for the most part, and despite The Word of God preaching good health and good diets, the people of Salt Lake City compensate for their tee-totaling ways by indulging a collectively throbbing sweet-tooth. Utah leads the US in per capita consumption of ice cream and confections, and the city streets are lined with bakeries, do-nut shops, ice cream parlors and fast-food outlets. So the Piedmontese delegation to Salt Lake City can put away the hipflasks; nobody’s going thirsty these Olympics.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team