The Specificity of the Hotdish
A guest post from Kathryn Schultz
I’m busy with moving this week so I enlisted my friend Kathryn Schultz to write about the comfort of Midwestern food for the newsletter. You can follow Kathryn’s food Instagram here and her Twitter here. Thank you, Kathryn!
As a product of parents who were raised in rural Minnesota homes with a lot of children and little money, I was primed to become deeply comfortable with eating something called hotdish. On cold days when I would come home from my after school activities and see that my mom had made tater tot hotdish for supper, I would happily heap it on my plate. Often a little ugly but always practical, it is the type of food I think of as completely American in a way that lacks cultural precedence.
Hotdish is essentially the same thing as what the rest of the United States calls a casserole, but a little more specific and unique to the upper Midwest. The ingredients typically include a starch (often potatoes, noodles, or wild rice), protein (usually ground beef), vegetables, and a sauce to bind it all together (often a can of soup, usually cream of mushroom), baked and served in a casserole dish. The seasonings don’t often verge far from the white Midwestern trifecta: salt, pepper, and ketchup to serve. While this may sound lackluster, there is something to be said for eating such a hearty hot thing on a subzero winter day.
As I’ve gotten older and lived in different cities further from home, I’ve come to be fascinated by the foods that I now realize are regionally specific. Often, I admire them for their strangeness and audacity. Hotdish, however, feels more emblematic of the type of Depression-era recipes my mother inherited from her own that provide a certain nostalgic comfort. It has a quality that is somehow both utilitarian and charmingly homemade, born out of necessity during tough economic times. According to the documentary Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story, the first written reference to hotdish came from a Lutheran church cookbook in 1930. Thrifty and versatile, it became a common way to stretch a pound of meat to feed a family or bring to a potluck. You wouldn’t make hotdish for just one or two people— eating it comes with a certain feeling of community.
In 1953, the brand Ore-Ida invented the tater tot, spurring the popularity of tater tot hotdish, which became inarguably the most iconic variety and the one I’m most familiar with. While perusing an old cookbook that my mom’s Girl Scouts-adjacent “Explorers” group put together in the early seventies, I found at least six hotdish recipes. Half of them were tater tot hotdishes, all combining some combination of ground beef, onion, vegetables, tater tots, and cream of mushroom soup. Hotdish, as a general rule, is inelegant, but neat little rows of golden brown tater tots do add a bit of glamor to the (forgive me) slop-like consistency of the ingredients below.
Still, I’m attracted to the humble nature of it. As a teen, I had the desire to reject my rural upbringing in the hopes of achieving a more cosmopolitan city life, but as I get older I find myself returning to modest Midwestern customs, much like the scene in the 1997 movie My Best Friend’s Wedding when Julia Roberts gives an analogy about someone ordering crème brûlée before realizing that they really just wanted Jell-O all along. In a similar vein, hotdish deserves credit where it is due: it isn’t trying to be something it’s not; it is true to its ordinary identity. It probably isn’t going to excite or wow you, but it will satisfy you and warm you up and maybe make you feel a little bit like Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand’s exaggerated Minnesotan character in Fargo—and sometimes that is simply the sort of thing I’m looking for in a meal.