I didn’t know there was anything different about haystacks, as a meal, until ninth grade when nobody understood my reference.
Oh, you mean taco salad! Angela laughed when I’d finished describing the meal. No, I countered. Mom also made taco salad, everything mixed together with Catalina dressing. If that didn’t get eaten, we threw the rest away. Soggy chips ruined the whole bowl. I sighed and relented, More like individual taco salads? It’s like all the burrito ingredients on top of chips instead. My friends looked back blankly, shrugging, and I retreated back into my head to re-categorize this meal as firmly Adventist
Oh I had learned there were foods, and then there were foods with religious connotation, specifically Seventh-Day Adventist foods. I just didn’t know haystacks was one. It didn’t come in a can labeled Loma Linda or use an alternative meat-reference, like “Fysh Fillets” or “Fri-Chik” as a name. All of the haystack ingredients were easy to source in any store, no matter how rural.
We had moved from suburban Minneapolis in Maple Plain to Starbuck to Hinckley to Karlstad, spent four summers at camp, and eaten haystacks all along the way. A meal for a crowd, haystacks populates church group meetings – though never, inexplicably, potluck. Too much coordination? Too little of a Sabbath afternoon offering to the lord? Too small a showcase of cookery skills? Debatable.
Haystacks fed Pathfinders (our religious scouting program), Revelation Seminar crowds (where we shared our fear of end times), and crews of ingatherers (door-to-door money collectors for overseas programs). An easy feast for last-minute Sabbath afternoon invites, this was how we came to ate haystacks at hundreds of homes across Minnesota. Mom always kept our preferred haystack ingredients on hand to feed a crowd, and a big batch of rice cooked in the twenty minutes it took us to chop and assemble them all, a counter lined with bowls.
Taking a plate, we started with the chips, crushing a handful into the center. No matter how few chips began the stack, it would tower by the end of the line, the haystack reference holding firm. Moderation was best. We added a ladle of beans, spoonfuls of cheese, salsa, and veggies, walking to the end of the line where a dollop of sour cream, thinned with lime juice, waited to crown each stack.
My family ate the rice on the side, piling the other ingredients onto crushed Fritos. Becka’s family used plain tortilla chips as a base while Aunt Ellie preferred Doritos. Adrian’s family ate as many chopped onions as their preferred, garlicky chickpeas. Sarah and Nathan’s family chopped up a bowl of bell peppers and cucumbers for crunch. Jason’s family added jalapeno slices, cojita cheese and a squeeze of lime. Jeremy’s family topped off each plate with a tornado of ranch dressing.
Each house where we ate haystacks, my family added something to our collection of ingredients, making the meal one bowl bigger. Serving it to our children, my sister and I run out of bowls. Save yourself and use a muffin tin for toppings instead.
Our assembly has expanded to include all of the fresh things we love: avocado, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, shredded cabbage, sliced olives, pickled jalapenos, red onion or scallions. Sometimes spring radishes, always cilantro. We still prefer rice on the side, but we’ve learned to love a few crispy potatoes on top, if there’s time.
The meal’s flexibility keeps it fresh. My kids will make nachos occasionally, or tuck the whole assembly into a tortilla. They’re weird, though. Who doesn’t enjoy the interplay of wholesome ingredients over a bed of chips?
1 bag of tortilla chips, any variety will do
14 ounces cooked black beans
14 ounces cooked pinto beans
14 ounces refried beans
2 cups grated cheddar or Colby jack cheese
Choice of jarred or fresh salsa
1 head lettuce, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 cucumber, finely diced
1 can black olives, drained + sliced
2 jalapenos, finely diced
2 avocados, cubed, or a tub of guacamole
1 tub sour cream or ranch dressing
Warm the beans together in a pot, stirring in some more cumin, fresh garlic, and pepper, if you like more vibrant flavors. Cook a pot of rice, or don’t. Place all the chopped items in bowls along the counter, ending with sour cream. Crush the chips lightly, if you wish. Each person prepares their own plate.
Ten years ago my friend Peter acknowledged that his Mormon upbringing also included haystacks. Instead of chips, their recipe began with pulled chicken, pineapple, and teriyaki. I still can’t imagine mucking up the whole dish with Hawaiian flare, though it sounds like a lovely and familiar salad. Despite my exit from the Adventist world, knowing another religion used the haystack name for this abomination still feels like a stab to the gut.