Tater tot hotdish is more than a casserole—it’s a metaphor. On the surface, tots line up in orderly rows, or at least meet side-by-side in a friendly jumble. It can be a messy business, penetrating that tater top, but once you do, you’ll find it conceals an immense warmth bubbling below, along with peas, green beans, and ground beef.
…this metaphor is falling apart, but what I’m trying to say is: Tater tot hotdish is a homemade, oven-baked analogue for the people of the very Upper Midwest region from which it originated.
These are the thoughts that might drift through your tater-filled noggin as you experience your very first hotdish, as I did last weekend. Though I’ve lived in Minnesota since 2017, and seen hotdish on innumerable greeting cards, T-shirts, and tea towels, I’ve attended roughly zero family reunions and church suppers in the years that followed, giving this Philly native precious few opportunities to encounter an actual edible hotdish in its natural habitat.
Friends of Racket Joel Swenson and Natalia Mendez—they of the weekend-long stay at the Mall of America—graciously offered to help change that. Swenson is a lifelong Minnesotan, and hotdish made regular appearances on his parents’ dining room table growing up. So, on Saturday, armed with a church-cookbook recipe and primed with some cold yellow beers, we sat down to a tot-covered 9x13 pan ready to tuck in.
Oh wait, first get a load of this… salad.
That’s a “Snickers Salad,” made with mixed-up Granny Smith apples, Cool Whip, pudding, and the aforementioned Snickers. It was served alongside our hotdish, not after, as a dessert, because as I was repeatedly told: “It is a fruit salad.” Six years in this great state and you people still find new ways to delight and horrify me.
Now, I’m from Pennsylvania Dutch country, and while we may not have as many salads made with candy bars, we do know our way around a casserole. Shepherd's pie was a childhood favorite in our house, and coming face to starchy face with tater tot hotdish I realized how similar they are.
Shepherd’s pie, with its fluffy mashed-potato top, is like a deconstructed hotdish. Or maybe more accurately, given their historical timeline, tater tot hotdish is like a re-constructed shepherd’s pie. (Tots were invented by Ore-Ida’s F. Nephi Grigg in 1953, a resourceful way to use excess potato shavings from making frozen French fries. Also: They were initially sold as livestock feed!) The difference is in the texture—you get a crunch from the tots that differs from the soft mashed potatoes of its forebear—and in the sort of altogether harmony. While a shepherd's pie comes together in an amalgamation of starch, meat, and veggie, the tater tots in their crispy shells tend to stay atop the filling below, slightly separate from it.
Here, it dawned on us: The missing piece was a slice of buttered white bread. We needed it to help mop up some of the gravy, or the filling—whatever you want to call it. (We lovingly went with “slop.”)
This is also around the time that an unsettling truth emerged. Our heathen host put garlic in his hotdish—a cardinal sin that would not have flown at the Swenson household. Garlic is ostensibly hot sauce to the Minnesota palate.
Still, the effect was the same. “I feel like I’m at a funeral,” one hot dish enjoyer noted, high/morbid praise for the platter, which was packed with ground beef, corn, green beans, and more. The tot topping is like a blanket, keeping all the heat inside without the casserole getting soggy or weird.
Folks, I love hotdish. I loved that there was apparently “like, a whole fuckin’ block” of cheese hidden in here somewhere; it had utterly disappeared into the filling. I love the way it sounds—tater tot hotdish—all alliteration and assonance, a poet's phrasing on a farmhand's budget. I love the overwhelming amount of leftovers it creates.
And next time, we’re going to make it with those smiley face fries, so when the hotdish is hot from the oven it looks like they’re barfing gravy. Culinary innovation!