A couple of weeks ago, before one of our geeky Dungeons and Dragons sessions, Aimee fixed dinner for me and Joel. She made a traditional Minnesotan meal: Tater Tot Hot Dish.

Hot Dish is apparently Minnesotan for casserole. And Tater Tot Hot Dish is like low-rent Shepherd’s Pie. Since I love Shepherd’s Pie, it’s no surprise that I love Tater Tot Hot Dish. Here’s my adaptation of Aimee’s recipe:

Tater Tot Hot Dish

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Brown 1# of lean ground beef (mixed with garlic, onion, salt, and pepper to taste).
3. Drain fat. Place in the bottom of a casserole dish.
4. Spread one can of soup over meat. Cream of mushroom is fine. (And is Aimee’s soup of choice.) So is cream of chicken. So is tomato.
5. Fill the rest of the casserole dish with tater tots.
6. Bake for approx. 45 minutes, checking periodically. Remove when top tater tots are nice dark golden brown.
7. A layer of cheese is optional. (Add cheese before baking.)

We’re having the Gingeriches over for dinner tonight. I’m making Tater Tot Hot Dish.

This meal will continue a sort of long-running joke with Jeremy and Jennifer. They prepare wonderful, delicious meals every evening, many of them quite elaborate. Left to our own devices, Kris and I eat lots of canned and frozen food. It’s no secret that one of our favorites is Hamburger Helper (especially Three Cheese Hamburger Helper). Jeremy and Jennifer find this, well, a little disgusting. Tater Tot Hot Dish is a sort of home-made hamburger helper. Except for the Tater Tots.

I e-mailed Dana to find out her family’s recipe for Tater Tot Hot Dish. I figured that since this is traditional Minnesotan fare, her mother would have prepared some sort of variation. What follows is an exploration of ethnic food, American style. (Amy Jo would probably dig this conversation.)

J.D.: For dinner Tuesday night, I’m going to make traditional Minnesotan fare: Tater Tot Hot Dish and Jello Poke Cake. Aimee has shared her family’s recipes with me; do you happen to have yours handy?

Dana: I fear you are on your own — I’ve never heard of either of those dishes, at least not by those names. I’m going to guess that the ‘Jello Poke Cake’ is basically Jello with bananas and whipped cream, which I have had, and which doesn’t really have any variations. Dunno on the Hot Dish — Hot Dish is basically just another name for casserole, and there’s millions of regional variations. The kind we usually had involved beans with a layer of fritos on top…

J.D. And you call yourself Minnesotan! 🙂

Dana: Well, sort of…

J.D.: Jello Poke Cake is a cake with holes poked in it, into which one pours jello. The frosting is either whipped cream or whipped cream mixed with pudding.

Dana: Nope, definitely never heard/seen/had that.

J.D.: I figured that since you and Aimee were practically neighbors [they’re both from Garrison Keillor‘s mythical Lake Wobegon region], you might share certain dishes. Still, you’re of Norwegian descent, yes? and I think she is of German descent.

Dana: Right. And also, it’s my Dad who is died-in-the-wool Minnesotan, not my Mom. As a consequence, most of our ‘ethnic’ food was not Minnesotan, but was actually Norwegian (Potato Cakes/Potato Lefse, Futimon, Kumla, Milkegrotte, Ebelskeeva, Krumkake, and stuff like that) (I’ve probably misspelled many of those, as I’ve only heard them, never seen them written).

Actual ethnic Minnesota food is a melange of Scandinavian, German, and Native American recipes (not a lot of Wild Rice in Norway or Germany), filtered through a few intermingled generations here in the state.

Also, there’s at least two semi-distinct traditions — The Lutheran’s hotdish traditions vary from those of the Catholics, for example. My Minnesota roots are Lutheran. If Aimee’s are Catholic, then that might also contribute to the variance in our cuisines.

Not that you probably care, but there’s another interesting dichotomy I’m aware of — Minnesota Lutherans have a recognizable sense of humor distinct from that of Minnesota Catholics. The Catholics are more dour, less jovial. This is a fairly gross generalization, but it’s apparently a widely known one.

J.D.: Aimee’s roots are, indeed, Catholic. Mystery solved! 🙂

Dana: Elementary, my dear Roth! The German Catholics and the Norwegian Lutherans, while sharing many cultural practices, still maintain many distinct differences to the trained eye.

I’ve been trying to think of foods that I would consider particular to Oregon or the Northwest. I’ve not thought of any. Then I realized this may be because I’ve never lived outside the region. I would have no way of knowing which of the foods I eat are regional, would I? Do any of you know what our regional foods are? Amy Jo?


On 06 April 2004 (12:28 PM),
Tammy said:

Maybe all our seafood could be considered regional. I bet out chinook salmon is a fairly regional dish. I know black olives are not eaten much in the east. They eat the green ones. My sisters husbands couldn’t believe it when they saw us eating black olives.

On 06 April 2004 (01:05 PM),
Dana said:

Actually, if we want to be pedantic, my family is from nowhere near Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.

As for localized cuisine — while I can’t really comment on Oregon (Tammy’s probably right on the seafood), there’s another peculiar midwest treat I know about: The Pasty (that’s with a short ‘a’ sound, like in ‘camp’ or ‘flat’). Of course, these are apparently originally from Britain, but then they mutated in the mines of the Upper Penninsula of Michigan and spread throughout North Eastern Wisconson, as well.


On 06 April 2004 (01:24 PM),
J.D. said:

I also here there’s some sort of frozen custard thing that’s popular out in the midwest. For the life of me, I can’t envision what form that might take. Like frozen yogurt?

On 06 April 2004 (01:32 PM),
Joel said:

Yeah, that frozen custard is huge in Wisconsin, there’s a chain called Culver’s that specializes in it. Pretty much a variation on a malted.
I grew up South Dakotan Methodist and, while my mom never made tater-tot hot dish, we had it plenty of times at church potlucks. The poke cake was something new Aimee brought to my life, however.

On 06 April 2004 (01:35 PM),
Dana said:

What, you mean like this?

I’ve never had any of that either, as far as I know. Believe it or not, the states here have pretty recognizable cultural gaps, and there are many things that don’t really get shared around. That looks like maybe a Wisconson thing.

On 06 April 2004 (01:42 PM),
Dana said:

Someone clearly needs this book… =)

On 06 April 2004 (02:42 PM),
mart said:

i’ve lived a lot of places around the country and the world. never been anywhere where salmon is consumed so feverishly (by me most especially!), so i’d have to cast my vote for that one (possibly with a nod to tammy’s seafood in general). also in a funny way, the asian food (thai and chinese) are kinda in contention for this honor too, though undoubtedly they’re more recent imports. to me salmon and thai food pretty well sum up what i can get here that i can’t get elsewhere.

(and i know there’s thai everywhere else too. but out here every corner has its own thai place. as opposed to living in colorado where every corner has its own mexican place, etc.)

On 06 April 2004 (02:42 PM),
mart said:

but black olives? everyone eats them everywhere…

On 06 April 2004 (02:55 PM),
J.D. said:

out here every corner has its own thai place

Is the Asian-Northwest fusion thing regional? Do you know what I mean? Stuff like what Caprial’s Bistro serves. Food that uses Northwest ingredients but in ways that are distinctly Asian.

Mart’s right, though, that this is pretty new stuff. It sounds like Tater Tot Hot Dish has been around for a while. I don’t know any unique Northwest dishes that have been around that long…

On 06 April 2004 (03:24 PM),
Dana said:

The only restaurants that I know of that sort of ‘started’ in the Pacific Northwest would be the Old Spaghetti Factory and Red Robin, neither of which have what you could call a distinct cuisine.

Part of the ‘problem’ is that Oregon, as near as I can tell, wasn’t settled from another country — it was settled from elsewhere in the US. The ethnicity is more diffuse. Here in Minnesota, frex, there’s a lot of Scandinavian and German. Not a lot of anything else. So the resulting mixture developed a ‘fusion’.

In the UP of Michigan there was, at one time, a thriving mining industry. So people who were miners in their own countries ended up settling there. There’s lots of Finns up there (there’s a finnish-language TV program on every Sunday morning broadcast from Marquette). But also waves of Poles, Italians, and people from Cornwall. That’s why a British food like Cornish Pasties ends up in Michigan. And then gets made, and fiddled with, by Finns and Italians, resulting in the similar, yet distinct, UP Pasty.

I suspect the migration patterns of the Oregon Trail kinda robbed the Pacific Northwest from developing that kind of fused ethnic background in the same ways.

But Mart is definitely right — Asian food in general is much more diverse and rich all up and down the West Coast, just as ‘Tex-Mex’ is much richer in Texas/Arizona/Louisiana/wherever than it is up here.

On 06 April 2004 (03:26 PM),
Joel said:


On 06 April 2004 (03:48 PM),
Aimee said:

About Tater Tot and Other Types of Hotdish:

The working middle-class habit of the Midwestern American is accompanied by a varied seasonal schedule, dramatically ranging from the 100% humidity of August mornings, to the negative 30 degree January nights. The climate would never be described as Temperate. This motley meterology endows the folks of the Midwest with a hearty “feast or famine” attitude (also a pithy interest in Storm Chasing, as it were).

During the summer months, gardens overrun lawns with an abundance of botanical delights: squash, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, and sweet corn. Most Midwesterners anxiously cast aside the mantle of famine and indulge their august appetites with juicy watermelon slices and buttery fresh-picked, road-side stand corn-on-the-cob [Aside: These pleasures are proudly on display for interested out-of-towners at the Great Minnesota Get-Together (end of August to Labor Day)].

However, as the tomatoes ripen on the vine, the wicked Jack Frost comes a calling in early October, leaving families a few precious days to safely stock their fresh State Fair winners on the canning shelves. Alas for those Midwesterners caught by the blight of a November frost during the work week! They’ll be feasting on the store-bought flavors of the Jolly Green Giant the remainder of the year. And so, to make these dreadful, mushy peas and beans palatable in remembrance of summer’s bounty, these innovative Midwesterners will add a can or two to a casserole dish and combine with salted meat, potatoes, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and call it “okay.”

On 06 April 2004 (04:23 PM),
Betsy said:

I should have had someone make Jell-O Poke Cake for our monthly cooking club’s white trash night recently!

I grew up in Michigan, but pasties are much more a thing in northern Michigan/the UP (Upper Peninsula) and not southern Michigan, where I lived. And we didn’t do hot dishes or tater tot casseroles either – instead, we did regular old casseroles with cream of mushroom soup, including tuna noodle casserole. Don’t forget the Durkee’s french-fried onions!

Oh – black olives are definitely NOT a NW thing; they are the only type of olive you’d see on a relish plate (which has pickle spears, celery and carrot sticks, black olives, radishes, and maybe a few pickled beets on it, typically) back in the midwest, for starters.

Oregon food tends to be upscale instead of middle-brow, in my experience (I’ve lived in Michigan, NYC, California & now Oregon, but have traveled through the country as well.) Even Bento – which is unique – typically has fresh steamed vegetables, steamed rice, and nice cuts of meat or fish. I wouldn’t have pegged Old Spaghetti Factory as a PDX thing, frankly, but maybe that’s because I first went to one in Cincinnati. (Oooh! Cincinnati chili is good stuff!)

Frozen custard is a St. Louis thing, but you can also find it elsewhere in the midwest. It’s a richer, eggier version of regular old soft-serve ice cream and is quite nice.

And I’ve already told friends that I’m dragging out my old recipe for red, white and blue layered Jell-O this year for the 4th of July. Yep, you put fresh fruit in the blue and red layers (blueberries and strawberries, respectively) but the white layer is made from lemon jello that has ice cream melted into it instead of cold water. It’s surprisingly good, in a cheesecak-ey kind of way…

On 06 April 2004 (06:44 PM),
Tammy said:

THese brother in laws of mine and their friends taht hadnever eaten green olives were not from the midwest. They were from Pennsylvania and Maryland. I don’t know if it was just their community that didn’t eat it or if it’s an East coast thing. Not only had they not eaten black olives a couple of them didn’t even know black olives existed!

On 06 April 2004 (08:08 PM),
Sheilah said:

“Oregon food tends to be more upscale, instead of middle-brow” ? Strong statement.

I guess that depends on if you consider seafood and Thai food upscale? Not me.

Frozen custard, for anyone who hasn’t tried it…is simply delicious! Sinful! 🙂

On 06 April 2004 (08:49 PM),
J.D. Roth said:

For the record, my version of Tater Tot Hot Dish was, well, substandard. Somehow I managed to forget to buy the cream of mushroom soup. I was faced with a choice: substitute cream of chicken soup or substitute tomato paste. I chose to use two cans of tomato paste. And no water. sigh Maybe next time…

On 07 April 2004 (05:27 AM),
Dana said:

I chose to use two cans of tomato paste. And no water. sigh Maybe next time…

Um. I don’t think you can make hotdish without Cream of X soup… Tomato paste? What were you thinking, man?

On 07 April 2004 (07:04 AM),
J.D. said:

I was thinking: “Gee, this is so much like my Shepherd’s Pie recipe (which calls for tomato paste) that I’ll just substitute that for the soup.”

Of course, this problem might have been averted if I’d taken a list with me to the grocery store instead of trying to remember everything. I also forgot whipped cream (but had time to go back for that; I wasn’t in the middle of the recipe when I needed it).

On a positive note, I did remember to get Kris her sliced olives…

On 07 April 2004 (07:28 AM),
Joel said:

Jeremy, Jennifer, Kris, and anyone else it may concern,
On behalf of the entirety of the Plains States, let me assure you that we in no way endorse or support Mr. Roth’s culinary innovation. In this regard, he stands alone, and must bear full responsibility for the consequences. We do, however, stand by you in your time of trial.
Joel Miron
Self-appointed cultural ambassador

On 07 April 2004 (07:54 AM),
Dana said:

…ponder, ponder…

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever had hotdish that included tomato anything. Not that such a beast doesn’t exist somewhere, of course.

More reference material

On 07 April 2004 (08:28 AM),
Dana said:

Here we go: Old Lutheran Recipes

I recognize most of those, although once again Tater Tot hotdish shows up. Dunno, but I know I’ve never had it.

On a slightly different note, this is not quite, but just about, the beverage my Dad’s mom used to make, and which they called ‘The Usual’. It is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had (I can’t stand rhubarb, and this just makes it worse).

The recipes there aren’t quite what I grew up with — Mom’s flat bread recipe used bacon grease, as I recall, and I know her Split-Pea Soup used yellow peas (the only place I’ve ever had yellow split pea soup that tastes like my Mom’s and her mothers is at a greek restaurant, of all places).

But anyway, this is at least close-ish to my heritage.

On 07 April 2004 (08:44 AM),
Dana said:

And yet more recipes, this time from the region of Norway called Trøndelag (which is near to where my grandmother grew up, in Stavanger).

Specific recipes I know from that list include Kumla (Norske Potato Dumplings, one of my favorite meals, actually — but Dad hates it), Krumkake (type of cookie), Fattigman (kind of like a donut, but not really), Julekake (‘Christmas Bread’ — not my favorite, but it’s okay in small doses), Risgrøt (Rice pudding), Rommegrøt (kind of a cream pudding, but not really. If made with milk instead of cream, we called it Milkegrøt, which I’m more familiar with), Lefse, Flat Bread, and (of course), Vafler.

But those recipes for Lefse and Flat Bread still vary from what my Mom learned from her mom. I gather there are a lot of regional variations… Our kumla had little chunks of ham inside the dumplings, for example, which isn’t traditional.

On 07 April 2004 (10:26 AM),
Nikchick said:

I’ve had both tater tot hot dish and jello poke cake. I can’t imagine a household in 1970s Minnesota that didn’t serve these dishes, at least once!

Pasties were one of my favorite “Minnesota” foods. My greandma made great pasties. There are two schools of pasty-eating: with gravy or with ketchup. Our family uses ketchup.

My family is neither Norwegian nor German: we’re Finns. My recipe for Tater Tot Hot Dish comes from the 1971 Centennial Cook Book from Albion Lutheran Church, St. James, Minnesota. I never lived in St. James, nor was I a Lutheran, but we inherited this cookbook from family friends.

1.5 lb hamburger browned with 1 chopped medium onion. 1 can of cream of mushroom soup combined with optional half a can of water (I like it without). 1 can whole kernal corn (drained). Mix together in a large casserole. Top with tater tots. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.

No recipe for Jello Poke Cake in this book, but there is a recipe for tomato soup cake (made with a can of condensed tomato soup), which I remember having and liking as a kid.

On 07 April 2004 (10:44 AM),
Dana said:

My family is a pasty-with-ketchup family, too, Nicole! But the real question is: rutebegas or no rutebegas?

In the 70s I lived in the UP of Michigan, and then we moved back to Minnesota in 79, and moved away again in early 84, so that may be why I missed out on the TTHD and JPC. Hmmm.

On 07 April 2004 (10:51 AM),
Betsy said:

Sheilah, I probably should have used a different word instead of ‘upscale.’

But if you think about the things people have mentioned that are ‘Oregon’ foods, they’re unique because they’re usually fresh – not canned, or frozen, or from packages. Fresh salmon or crab, fresh berries, nuts, etc. And bento is pretty healthy – steamed veggies, rice, etc.

Contrast that with your typical tuna noodle casserole (and I am not knocking tuna noodle!) – canned tuna, packaged noodles, canned cream of mushroom soup, and either potato chip sprinkles or canned Durkee onions.

I guess I think of it as ‘upscale’ because it’s typically the kind of cooking (fresh ingredients) you’ll find in better restaurants, or by people who are trying to impress or make a ‘nice’ meal for guests.

On 07 April 2004 (11:15 AM),
Joel said:

Interesting point, Betsy, and it seems to fit with Aimee’s interpretation of the development of the hot dish, which, she admitted last night, she’d pretty much just made up.

On 07 April 2004 (11:39 AM),
Dana said:

Made up or not, I thought it sounded appropriately Keillor-esque, Aimee!

On 07 April 2004 (03:42 PM),
Kristin said:

J.D., I’m sure you could’ve sampled Tater Tot Casserole at any number of Zion potlucks, had you not jetted off to Whiskey Hill Store for grape soda and Hostess treats. “Nothing good to eat here,” you thought. My, how far you’ve come 🙂

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