Funeral Potatoes (California, 1997, adapted)

Funeral potatoes are an almost meme-worthy dish these days, one of the few mid-century canned-soup-and-cream casseroles that’s still aligned with the twenty-first century palate.  I’ve never been to a funeral with refreshments, much less a full meal.  The dreary name presumably stems from a custom of serving them at a post-service family meal, or perhaps bringing them to the home of a grieving family.  Funeral potatoes are substantial, comforting, and easy to reheat, and can be easily prepared in impossibly large quantities as needed.  Fortunately it’s not necessary to lose a loved one to enjoy them – they are a popular fixture at potlucks and church dinners, particularly in the American West and South.

This particular recipe comes from a happier memory than a funeral.  Shortly after I was married my spouse and I were invited to a church Christmas party, hosted by an elderly family in the congregation.  They were quite particular about the menu, providing a signup sheet that included not just what to bring, but also the particular recipe to be followed when preparing said recipe.  In these days I was still an inexperienced cook, teaching myself by cooking through the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  I was still a struggling college student and had not yet been exposed to fine dining.  This recipe was, in many ways, an utter revelation.   I’m sure I had eaten something similar at church functions growing up, but it was certainly outside my family’s culinary lexicon.  To be able to make something so rich and rewarding on my own was deeply satisfying.  The party was a hit, and funeral potatoes have been a regular feature of our Easter dinner for nearly twenty-five years.

As I peer across the internet there are dozens upon dozens of variants on funeral potatoes, nearly all of which are built on a core of potatoes, sour cream, and cheddar cheese.  Most include a can of condensed soup and some sort of aromatic.   Many variants rely on frozen potatoes or shredded hash browns, a practice which certainly simplifies preparation but which I can’t condone.   All appear to have heart-stopping amounts of fat and cholesterol (which is, to be sure, part of the appeal).

The version that I ‘inherited’ from the kind couple in California relies on an unusual method for preparing the potatoes.  They are boiled whole, skin on, and then cooled before slicing.  From a practical perspective this is cumbersome and time-consuming, and especially unpleasant if you’ve failed to plan properly and have to blister your fingers peeling freshly-boiled potatoes.   I’ve tried peeling and slicing the potatoes prior to boiling but they either end up undercooked (like scalloped potatoes) or waterlogged (like potato soup).  The boil first, then peel and slice method seems to be crucial for maintaining the potatoes’ structural integrity, while still keeping them soft enough to melt in your mouth.  They do not slice neatly – it’s more like a controlled crumble – but the texture of the final dish is nearly perfect.   For the last five or six years I’ve left out the corn flake topping, in part because no one in our family really eats corn flakes anymore and we don’t have them on hand.  They add a little bit of  salty crunch but are wholly unnecessary.

Funeral Potatoes (California, 1997, adapted)

  • Preparation: 1 h
  • Cooking: 1 h
  • Ready in: 2 h
  • For: 8 hearty side dish servings
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  1. Preheat the oven to 325º F
  2. Boil potatoes with skin on for ~20 minutes. Let cool at least 30 minutes, then peel with a butter knife.
  3. Slice potatoes about a half inch thick. Some slices will remain intact, others will crumble to pieces. This is okay.
  4. Combine potatoes with remaining ingredients and place into a 9x13 casserole.
  5. Bake for sixty minutes at 325º F.

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