Karen’s Tater Tot Hot Dish

Gourmets may sneer at Tater Tot Hot Dish.  It is, after all, a dish made with scraps of potatoes squeezed through a machine similar to a sausage stuffer, chopped into short lengths and briefly fried before being flash frozen.  

Mormon brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg invented Tater Tots in 1953 as a way to use the slivers of potatoes left over from their French fry production line.  By 1956, the brothers had developed a way to mass-produce these “little potatoes” and Tater Tots appeared in grocery stores. 

According to an advertising and marketing lecturer at Iowa State University, the new product did not sell well.  It was made from potato scraps and was priced accordingly.  Customers apparently felt that that something so cheap couldn’t be very good. The Griggs raised the price, and the rest is history.  

Their experience reminds me of one I had after my mother’s death.  We scheduled an estate sale on a summer weekend when lots of tourists would be in the Hayward area.  The sale was going well, but a small Johnson outboard motor that my father had bought many years before to use with his canoe still had not sold.  My sisters and brother-in-law had priced it at a hundred dollars, but at least a dozen potential buyers had looked at the motor and left without taking it.

My sisters suggested that we drop the price to $75, but refused their advice.  “It’s an antique motor in perfect running condition,” I pointed out, “and it’s worth a lot more,”  so I printed a new price tag for $200.  Just a few minutes later, a man bought the motor at the new price.  He collected antique outboards and needed this one for his collection.  He probably would have bought it for $100, but maybe not.  He might have seen the lower price and thought that it was a piece of junk that looked good on the outside, but was basically a piece of scrap.  I think I was just lucky, but that didn’t stop me from explaining to my sisters that I was a better salesman than they were.

Unlike the outboard motor collector, the housewife who bought her first package of Tater Tots almost certainly did so because of the low price.  Later,  when she needed to make something cheap and easy for a church potluck, she produced the original Tater Tot Hot Dish.  As a thrifty cook, she might even have made it with crumbled leftover meatloaf.

Perhaps this humble origin explains the popularity of Tater Tot Hot Dish for church potlucks.  The ladies in my church taught us not to waste anything edible, and my mom and dad reinforced those lessons.  Jerri learned the same principle from her parents, and her grandmother was famous for saving leftovers too small to warm up.  Once they had turned, she would throw them out, explaining that she didn’t feel so bad about discarding food that had spoiled.

The original recipe almost certainly used Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and cut green beans, either a can from the store or a jar from the cellar, and the final layer may have been bread crumbs instead of French fried onions.  Today, there are thousands of variations on this basic recipe with different ingredients and directions for assembly.  There are even recipes for making your Tater Tot Hot Dish in a slow cooker, and—believe it or not—vegetarian versions.  About the only thing these recipes have in common is that Tater Tots are one of the main ingredients, though most of them also include a comment like “This is like my mother made.”

In small country churches, large urban churches, Protestant and Catholic churches, in the deep south, the great plains and the upper midwest, I have been a guest at potlucks and enjoyed many different Tater Tot Hot Dishes.  Some had the potatoes on the bottom, others on the top.  Some used French fried onions, others were smothered with cheese.  Many were made with cream of mushroom soup, but others used cream of chicken or celery.   They were all tasty, but until now I had never made Tater Tot Hot Dish myself.  

Looking through used cookbooks at the Two Fish Thrift Store in New Richmond a few weeks ago, I found a copy of Redeemer Lutheran’s Good Cooking.  The recipe for Karen Lindstrom’s Tater Tot Hot Dish was highlighted in visible orange, so I decided to try it.  The cookbook was published in 1997 by members of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Burkhardt, Wisconsin, “the little church with a BIG heart,”.  

The church seems to be thriving.   No longer a small clapboard church with some stained glass windows, Redeemer Lutheran is now housed in a larger building a quarter mile east of the original location but still along highway A in Burkhardt.  The “little church” is being remodeled into a private residence.

I haven’t found a Tater Tot Hot Dish recipe in my mother’s cookbooks or recipe files, but it was probably like Karen’s.  As I recall, Mom’s Tater Tot Hot Dish didn’t look like much, but it tasted good.  She might have been motivated by the fact that she could make a tasty meal without peeling potatoes and chopping lots of vegetables.  

Karen’s Tater Tot Hot Dish reminds me of the ones we used to have when I was a kid, and my effort produced a version as good as or even a little better than many I have eaten in church basements. That’s mainly because most of those potlucks staged the ketchup bottle on the serving line, so you needed to get up from your table to replenish the garnish.  When you serve it at home, you can make sure that the ketchup is within reach.

INGREDIENTS:

1  lb. ground beef

1/3 cup chopped onion

1 to 1 1/2 lbs. Tater Tots

1 can cut or French cut green beans (about 2 cups)

1 10 3/4 oz. can of cream of mushroom soup

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 cup French fried onions

PROCEDURE:

Brown a pound of lean ground beef over moderate heat. While the meat is browning, chop about a third cup of onion into a quarter-inch dice.  Add the onion to the meat a minute or two before the meat is done.  Preheat the oven to 350º and lightly grease an eight by twelve or nine by thirteen-inch baking pan.

Cover the bottom of the pan with Tater Tots.  Layer the meat and onion over the Tater Tots.  Drain the beans and spread them evenly over the meat and finish the casserole by spreading the undiluted mushroom soup over the three layers.  

Bake the casserole for fifty minutes, then sprinkle the French fried onions on top and bake another five to ten minutes.

Serve with ketchup.

NOTES:  Feel free to vary the recipe.  Karen says you can substitute ground venison for the beef.  If the results don’t please you, eat it anyway but don’t make that version again.  I have a vague memory of being served a Tater Tot hot dish made with tiny shrimp and condensed cream of shrimp soup.  Sounds weird but it might be worth trying, then again….

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