This is the Place: Salt Lake Old and New

This is the Place Monument

In 1847, after a grueling 1300-mile exodus from Missouri, over the vast plains and megalith Rockies, the first Mormon settlers arrived in what would become Utah. Looking over the vast valley from the Piedmont of the Wasatch Mountains, Brigham Young declared to his flock, “This is the place.”

That place, the Salt Lake Valley, must have looked like Eden from that distance. Cottonwood trees climbed the mountains, exposed limestone would provide the foundation of their new terrestrial Kingdom. In the distance, what seemed to be a lake of plenitude must have signaled to Young a perfect place for a new Eden. Of course, that lake would be the brackish Great Salt Lake, providing no drinkable water. No bother, must have thought Brigham—it is a Dead Sea in the New World!

Salt Lake City is the first city of Mormondom, a place on the map that is the home to the fastest growing religion in recent memory. Yet half of the population are “gentiles,” as the faithful call us. Its adherents will tell you about it without much inquiry of your own.


Conferences are the usual reason for my travel, and Salt Lake was not immune from this trend. My pursuits off-the-clock in Mormondom were three fold—I wanted to find the local fare, desired to tour as much of Temple Square as I could, and I wanted to find the green shoots of the new “Gentile” Utah peeking through centuries of dogma. As I began my pilgrimage, locals could tell I was not from around Salt Lake before I even opened my mouth.

“How can you tell?” I’d ask.

“You have a beard!”

Sporting stubble was a tell, as Mormon men have been clean shaven since their honor code days and missionary work. Prior to these edicts, manly manes were common among the Mormons. But, as the post-WWII Americana developed, church elders encouraged the flock to clean up, assuring Mormons were integrated in American society—that they were as American as any other. So, the IBM look came into fashion among the young, and often carried on through life. But, like any religion, doctrine takes time to change, and now those short-sleeve dress shirts and clean-shaven men again look as though they are from another age.

Salt Lake City, May 2012

Salt Lake is the most liberal of Utah’s cities, but that isn’t saying much. A Utah liberal is probably closer to a New York Republican on the political spectrum. Locals have elected Democratic mayors who look toward economic development as a safe foil to stand against fundamentalist “values voters.” At the time of my visit, no fewer than 15 major construction sites were active downtown. The Salt Lake of my memories is already a new world—a new city. Not the easiest of cities to take on by foot, I hired a cab. Mentioning my past career in state governments, the cabbie gave me the ground truth about Utah politics. “I like the governor, but he’s like the rest of the statehouse…towing the Mormon party line.” An interesting turn of phrase, revealing that Utah politics are squarely divided between the faithful and the fallen, in his estimation anyway.

Tasty Fry Sauce

Fry Sauce and a Blue Iguana 

Task one was locating Utah’s contribution to the Great American Buffet—fry sauce. For the uninitiated, Fry Sauce is a curious yet convenient condiment spread over fast food from Provo to Park City. The mixture of ketchup and mayo into one puddle on a plate is called “a mess” back East. I was prohibited in making such a concoction on my plate as a child, certainly. In fact, when the two emulsions meet on a burger, most Americans are so embarrassed by the mess that we put a bun on it and hide it from view. Arctic Pop, a local burger chain, originated the sauce.

“Are you sure you want to go there?” he asked.

“I do, I read about it on Yelp!”

“Yeah, but, it isn’t that great.”

Is this the place?” I asked, hoping for a rise out of my cabbie.

He responded, without catching my best Brigham Young impression.

He was right. The poor shop looked like the last Burger Chef on earth, décor untouched since 1978. And sadly, I couldn’t get fry sauce in a nice soufflé cup. It arrived in a pre-sealed shallow tin.

“Hmm. This isn’t the place.”

The cabbie agreed to wait for me. Cab traffic is pretty light in Utah. Quickly coming back to the car with some disappointment, he offered, “Want some real food?” “How about Mexican? You’ll like the Red Iguana.”

Red Iguana: The Killer Mexican Food

The Red Iguana is known for its mole (pronounced like MOH-lay). Mexicans began moving to Utah in force in the post-NAFTA years, bringing some flavor into a part of the country where “Jell-O” is the unofficial food of the state.

“Is this the place….for mole?” I asked some departing diners.

“Sure, but the Blue Iguana is better. The family divorced, and the husband opened up a new restaurant.” Or, so the passers by gossiped. Copious research did not show any relation between the two restaurants, save for the choice in mascot. The mole was better than fine. A thick savory puree of coffee and chocolate, ancho and Serrano peppers, tomato and onion dress up the grilled chicken. I could eat a bowl of this stuff and have them hold the chicken. Who needs fry sauce…the state condiment of Utah should be mole.

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, 1899 retouched

This is their place

Dusk seemed to be the best time to tour Temple Square—the beating heart of the Mormon faith. While modern buildings have sprouted up around the grounds, the Square remains the focal point of the downtown core. Admonitions await the visitor, on carefully placed signage:

My arrival, unlike the ancient Mormon settlers, was heralded. I was immediately approached by two young men, matching missionaries in their IBM uniform look, welcoming me (and perhaps assessing my beard for signs of heathendom).

“Hiiii, just looking around.” I offered immediately, expecting the sort of proselytizing that arrives at my doorstep periodically.

“Okay. You may want to see the visitor’s center, or the Museum of Church History and Art.”

Is this the place?” I asked jokingly, expecting the missionaries to at least catch my increasingly inside joke funny only to myself.

“No, it is over there,” they monotonously directed. Still, no one catching my Brigham Young impression.

“Can I go in the big building too?” pointing blasphemously at the Temple, another tell that I was not among the Elect.

“No, only if you have a Temple Recommend,” they dismissed. “But there is a model of the temple in the South Visitor’s Center if you want to take a look.”

Verily enough there was a model. This came as a surprise to me, as I always thought the interior of the temple was a secret. I approached a young woman missionary pair in the Center, asking about this revelation.

Salt Lake Temple Model

“The temple isn’t secret, but sacred,” they offered in a well-turned, rehearsed and pitch perfect reply.

Ah, well that makes more sense to me. While the connections between Mormon practice and Masonic ritual (the alleged inspiration of some of the faith for Joseph Smith) are well documented, I forgot for a moment that what was an anthropological experiment for me was a faith for others. These grounds, in their Marriottesque décor, were the Mormon St. Peter’s Square. This was the Mormon Vatican.

Many of the missionaries in Temple Square were from other countries—a veritable EPCOT center of nationalities purposefully assigned to this place, to show the global majesty of the church. Their name tags are augmented by the flag of their home country. Mormons are polite to a fault. I knew as much from my acquaintances over the years, and knew that this was the place for me to try out my traveler’s pidgin polyglot of languages without fear of ridicule.

 “Ist das die platz…fur die alte Tabernacle, bitte?” to the Swiss and German pair.

They giggled, feigned appreciation for my butchering of German grammar (no religion can temper German efficiency and directness), and began their checklist of engaging a hairy gentile on his path to conversion. I entertained this a bit, wanting to see just how the conversation works within the compound. They shared their favorite passages from the Pearl of Great Price. They asked about my own beliefs and what I think happens to my soul when I expire. All deep questions for a guy wandering around in shorts and a backpack, sneaking chomps of a candy bar despite the extolling not to eat on hallowed ground.

“Danke schoen, nein danke.” “Ich war einmal Methodist.”

Christmas at Temple Square

In the old Tabernacle—the choir hall—I find myself alone. No tour was in the place at the moment. This building housed the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which has gone on to become a rather famous singing ensemble comprised of volunteers. As a former chorister, I have my own judgments about the choir’s curious diction (but perfect pitch and articulation), but I reserve those judgments and take in the hall. I belted off some of my own Baritone to hear the world-famous acoustics—so clear that you can hear a pin drop on the podium 200 yards away. My Bach chorale cycled along the domed ceiling like an inverted velodrome, growing like a tidal tsunami until returning back, the effect like singing in a shower the size of a sports arena. Some other tourists and a few missionaries opened the door. I had stopped singing in what felt like an hour ago, and the sound was just now diminishing. We made eye contact, and I just shrugged. Rather than letting a conversation erupt, I walked out the nearest door, a la Steve McQueen (“do something awesome, then leave.”) or Snoop Dog (droppit like its hawt).

Across from the older campus is the newer world headquarters of the Mormon Church, a 1950’s era pile of alabaster that looks like it landed from Planet Eisenhower. The building sports a massive Mercator projection of the world, not too unlike something Mussolini might have wanted in his den. All of the major activities of the church—from the performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the semi-Annual conference are held at the Conference Center across the street. This building blends natural elements and stone in yet another amusement-park-tacky-yet awe-inspiring way.

Plump-faced sun

I should pause here to say that Mormon architecture should be analyzed by its own vocabulary. It is hard to adjudicate it otherwise. The temple itself is based on the biblical proportions (as understood) of Solomon’s Temple. This created a footprint that seems squished—a very long, slightly narrow rectangle. The use of repeating elements—spires, windows, and asymmetry—differs greatly from the use of the Greco-Roman architecture in most public buildings in the antebellum 19th century. Symbols—a rising, smiling sun and the oxen—are all elemental in Masonic imagery, and are used liberally on the old Temple façade.

“Ni hao,” I offered to the Taiwanese missionary, “Zai Nali Museum…uh…ma?”

Gentiles can tour the Temple Square without worry of conversion. If you have an open mind, and are willing to treat the Mormons with respect and leave the sarcasm and contempt behind, walking the grounds and seeing a unique American story first-hand is worth the effort. The church even provides shuttles from the airport to give lay-over passengers a brief tour if their schedule permits. The Mormons, of course, hope visitors will be won over by their visit to the Square, but this is not a requirement for admission.

As I left the square, a young couple walked slowly, blissfully toward the front of the old temple. The setting sun back-lit the edifice like a great corona, as if the temple was emanating divine light. The long shadow over the square blanketed the flower beds in dusky hues. The girl looks up in awe, as I did, at the scene. And then he made his move, she turned to find him on bended knee, the diamond hurling bolts of sunset all around. I am just far enough away that the whole scene occurred in near silence—like a colorized Oz as a silent film. She contorted in laughing joy. The nod. The hug. Another eternal couple forged. Even the most skeptical can’t help but appreciate the numinous in that experience. I do not think they knew that I was a voyeur to their moment. They expected someone looking on, perhaps their Heavenly Father from atop the Temple. For them, this is the place.

Polygamy Porter Pint

The new Salt Lake City

Ending on that note, it was time for me to find my place. Two blocks down, I found my third goal—the new Utah. Aside from Robert Redford’s Sundance and the occasional independent bookery, Salt Lake has grown from its conservative founding into a cosmopolitan city. Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utahans have relaxed their once totalitarian laws on the consumption of alcohol. At the Beer Hive, the bar carries Utah’s contributions to the craft beer movement. Wasatch Brewing Company has been in business since 1986, surviving the old “club” days when imbibers were required to buy a “membership” to a pub, and were also required to buy food with every two beverages. Wasatch led the Reformation, serving up fine micro-brew to the Gentiles and doing it well.

“What will it be?”

“Something local, dark, and free of false hope, perhaps.”

The bartender picked up on my irreverence. The beard must have sealed the deal.

“Ah, try the Polygamy Porter.”

“Pardon?” I snuff, attempting to see if the bartender back peddles. He holds his ground, seeing through it.

“Polygamy Porter,” I look at the tap handle, and sure enough, the logo says it all. Buxom Victorian nudes around their beau, with the slogan.“Bring some home for the wives.”

“Brilliant,” I thought. “This is my place.”

Polygamy Porter

Photo Credits

This is the Place Photo Dean / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vintage Missionary hoveringdog / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Salt Lake Skyline CountyLemonade / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tasty Fry Sauce BenSpark / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Iguana vxla / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Temple Square Photo credit: Foter / Public domain

Temple Model Interior nan palmero / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tabernacle J Mullhaupt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nauvoo Sun Stone quinn.anya / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Polygamy Porter MikeOliveri / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Temple Square Sign: The Author