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….

Teri’s Grandma’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Grandpa and Grandma Rang’s farm was two miles from their church at Phipps, Wisconsin.  Trinity Lutheran Church was a modest white clapboard church built in 1905 on land donated by a parishioner.  Another family donated five acres across from the church for a cemetery.  The church was demolished many years ago, and trees grow where I once recited Bible verses, but the cemetery is still maintained, and we visit it regularly to put flowers on the graves of my parents.

My first memories of church services and other activities all involve that little church.  My mother and father were active members, which meant that we kids were also part of that church family.  It was there that I learned that one should fill the front pews out of respect for the minister, that you didn’t need fancy clothes but you should wash and wear clean pants and shirts and that you kept quiet and paid attention during the service.  Mom made sure that I was dressed in a clean white shirt and wore a clip-on tie every Sunday.

I remember potlucks with lots of food and time to play with the other kids while our fathers met on church business with the minister and our mothers visited with each other.  By the time I was five or six I was one of the kids who had walk-on roles in the Christmas play.  While the older kids were dressed as angels, Mary or Joseph or the three Wise Men and recited scripture, we little kids pretended to be shepherds or, worse, sheep. 

It must have been a Christmas service that persuaded Grandpa and Grandma Rang to take their family to church on a snowy December night in 1922.  My father told me the story many years ago.  In the summer, the family rode to church in their Overland touring car, but in winter they traveled by horse and sleigh.  On that occasion, however, the snow was so deep that the horse could not pull the sleigh.

“It just acted like a plow,” said my father.  “Pa told us we would have to walk.  So that’s what we did.  And we weren’t the only ones.”

“Pa broke trail, and George and Margaret who were bigger helped tramp down the snow.  I helped Stub get through it and Ma made sure no one got lost.    It took us a while, but we made it in time for the service.  The minister’s wife had hot cider for everyone afterwards in the parsonage next door to the church.

“It was easier walking home, because we had made a pretty good trail.  Harold (my father’s younger brother) was born about two months later.  Ma and Harold did just fine.”

Today I think often of this story when church is canceled because of a winter snow or ice storm warning.  “People don’t want to have an accident driving in bad weather,” says Jerri.  I don’t reply, but the temptation is there:  “Couldn’t they just walk?”

Though Dad did not mention them, I would be nearly certain that the minister’s wife would have put out a plate of cookies to fortify the parishioners for their walks home.  One Sunday when Connie Schultz and her daughter Teri were hosting the coffee and treats after the service, they had made an old-fashioned raisin oatmeal cookie that I’m sure would have been familiar to the minister’s wife and my father.  

Teri told me that they are one of the first cookies she remembers making with her grandma Rachael Schultz.  They aren’t overly sweet but are delightfully moist.  Connie explained that boiling the raisins was probably the reason why the cookies stayed so moist.  Whatever the explanation, the recipe for these cookies deserves a place in your recipe box.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup butter

1 cup raisins

2 large eggs

Pinch of salt

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. cinnamon 

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups old fashioned oatmeal

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup chopped walnuts

PROCEDURE:

Start by bringing the eggs and a cup of butter to room temperature by setting them out an hour or so before starting the cookies.

Put a cup of raisins into a small saucepan and cover them with water.  Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the raisins for ten minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat and let the raisins cool a bit.

While the raisins are cooling, cream together the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl.  Add the eggs, spices, and five tablespoons of the raisin liquid to the creamed sugar.  Sift half of the flour and soda into the liquid ingredients, then stir in the oatmeal followed by the rest of the flour.  Drain the raisins and blend them and the walnuts into the batter.  You will have a moist batter.

Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake at 350º for ten to twelve minutes until the cookies begin to brown on the edges.  Cool them on wax paper and store the cookies in an airtight container.

NOTES:  In case you are wondering, a pinch of salt is about a sixteenth of a teaspoon, roughly the amount you can pick up with your thumb and first two fingers.  If you are using unsalted butter, use a quarter of a teaspoon of salt.

If the batter looks a little too moist, you can stir in a tablespoon or two of flour at this point.