When I was growing up in Utah, I always looked forward to the month of July. Not only did we get to celebrate the 4th of July along with everyone else in the country – but, thanks to the Mormons, Utah also has a second holiday in July!
Pioneer Day is celebrated all over Utah every July 24th – it is an actual state holiday, so county offices and many businesses are closed, and there is no school! So, you can immediately understand why Pioneer Day would appeal to a youngster, but it gets even better! Every community has Pioneer Day activities, which usually include fireworks, parades, rodeos, festivals, carnivals, and picnics. You may be thinking to yourself, “That sounds FABULOUS! I obviously missed out on a lot of fun when I was younger! Why doesn’t MY state have a Pioneer Day?” The simple answer is: because your state wasn’t settled by a bunch of Mormons.
You see, the Mormon Church (officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – but that is a HUGE mouthful, so everyone calls them “The Mormons”) was originally established in the Midwest. However, due to religious and political differences, their non-Mormon neighbors weren’t fond of them and would drive the Mormons out of town or out of the state. No sooner than they would get comfortably settled in the next place, the same thing would happen. Mormons were being beaten, tarred and feathered, and killed at an alarming rate – and once Joseph Smith, the founder, was murdered, the new leader, Brigham Young, decided that it was time to get the hell out of Dodge (or in this case, Illinois).
The Mormons wanted to be isolated – to settle far away from other people, somewhere that no one else would want to be – so, of course, Utah was the obvious choice (even though there was no Utah at the time – but you get the drift). With a rough idea of where they were going, they headed west. They started the journey in early April of 1847 and finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24th – where, according to the records, Brigham Young proclaimed, “This is the place!”
So, every July 24th, the state celebrates that day – because had Brigham Young not been so sick of traveling or if he had not like the look of the place, the Mormons may have ended up in California or Oregon (and then THEY would be the ones having a fabulous time on Pioneer Day).
As a kid, I had mixed feelings about Pioneer Day – I loved the fact that I didn’t have to go to school and the parades and fireworks were always a plus – but after the morning parade, my sister and I always had to join our mom at Central Park, where the big Pioneer Day festival was held. I’ve got nothing against festivals – who doesn’t love the games, the food, and the handmade crafts? What I wasn’t so fond of was the fact that we were shanghaied child labor for my mother’s annual foray into capitalism.
For as far back as I can remember, when my mom baked, she would save some of the bread dough. She would take golf ball size lumps of it, pulling and stretching them until they were thin. If a hole appeared in the middle, she would deftly pull one end back through the hole, adding a sassy twist. She then would slip the dough into hot oil, deep-frying it to a crispy golden brown before fishing it out and dredging it in sugar. Mormons call these “scones” – although they are nothing like the fruit-studded English scones you might buy at Starbucks. These are more like doughnuts, or Indian fry bread, or beignets, or sopapillas. It’s probably not surprising that just about every culture has some version of fried dough – because, let’s face it – it’s delicious!
Understanding her fellow Mormon’s love of fried dough, my mother rented a booth at the Pioneer Day festival, frying up huge scones in two big pots of simmering oil as fast as the crowd could order and eat them up, slathered in honey-butter and sugar. My sister and I took the orders and collected the money – and I’m sure we weren’t slave labor – because my mother paid us for our efforts – didn’t she? To be honest, I don’t remember – perhaps we worked for scones – because I totally would.
As the years went by, mom came up with additions to the menu – at first, she there was homemade root beer, made with dry ice in an old fashion milk can. Tendrils of fog would leak from under the lid for hours until the root beer was finally ready – and then we served it up, ice-cold, bubbly, and delicious! Later on, mom purchased a cotton candy machine and my sister and I would fire that sucker up, pour the flavored sugar in, and watch as the wispy confection began to form and float, caught by the passing breeze. Then it was a fairly simple task to capture the spun sugar with long, narrow paper cones – rolling and turning until we had a cloud of pink or blue cotton candy the size of a human head. The side effect was that I also had sticky cotton candy all over my arms, on my face, and in my hair – literally turning me into a sweet girl.
I’m totally craving Mormon scones now! If you are too, you don’t need to mix up and knead the dough, waiting for it to rise before punching it down and then forming and frying the scones (because who has that time and patience for that – except maybe my mother). Instead, just buy a package of frozen roll dough (I like Rhodes) – let it thaw and then stretch each one into a round, flat shape, probably about a half-inch thick or less (don’t get too anal – just pat and stretch that sucker out like you used to do when you played with Play-doh as a kid). If you tear a hole in the middle, don’t even worry about it – deliciousness, not perfection, is the goal here! In the meantime, heat up some oil in a deep fryer or a heavy pot – you just want enough in there that the scone can be dunked completely and swim freely while it browns. If you want it just right, the temperature of the oil should be between 350-400 degrees. Or, if you’re like me, just heat that oil up and toss a scone in there – if it just sits on the bottom, the oil is too cold. If it gets brown within in instant, and then proceeds to turn kind of black – the oil is too hot. Adjust accordingly and pretty soon you’ll have it right (although you may have to sacrifice a few scones in the process). You’ll want to turn the scone over once it gets golden brown – because uneven tans are just not attractive – even for scones. When the scone is done, fish it out with a fork and let it drain on some paper towels – but while it is still hot, dredge it in sugar or slather it in honey butter. Don’t know how to make honey butter? Take some room temperature butter and start adding honey – whip it together with a fork, tasting occasionally until you achieve the level of sweetness you like. Tada! It’s that simple!
Let me know how your scones turn out – and try not to burn down the house or burn yourself – although Mormon scones would be completely worth it!
What treats did your mom make for you when you were a kid that you still crave today? Did your parents ever put you to work or train you so that you could work in a traveling carnival? Did your hometown or state have special celebrations that no