In Defense of the Hotdish

Food Features casseroles
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It’s Wednesday after school on a fall day in 2006, and my mom reaches into the freezer to pull out a casserole dish wrapped in foil. On the foil, in Sharpie, she has scribbled directions for reheating the casserole: in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. Despite the written directions, she reiterates the temperature to my brother and I as we pretend to start our homework.

Before that year, she had been a stay-at-home mom, but when she decided to go back to school for a teaching degree, caring for children undoubtedly became more difficult as she attempted to juggle a full-time college schedule simultaneously. Hence, the casseroles. There were many of them. Tuna noodle casserole, funeral potatoes, even quiche. (Yes, quiche is a casserole. Fight me.) But to me, the pinnacle of the genre was hotdish, also affectionately called, simply, tater tot casserole.

First, browned beef and onions are placed in a square casserole dish, and then canned green beans, corn or both are scattered on top. Canned Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup (or cream of chicken if your pantry isn’t fully stocked) is spread over the meat-and-veggie mixture. The crowning ingredient is the frozen tater tots, which crisp up into a protective crust to protect the fragile ingredients below from the harsh heat of the oven. Sometimes, cheese, bacon or scallions are sprinkled on top, but only just before the dish is finished cooking. After a short time in the oven, the casserole comes out steaming hot, and we would scoop it unceremoniously onto our plates where it would become a bland-looking but delicious-tasting slop.

Casseroles in general, but hotdish specifically, are often derided for their beige canned or frozen ingredients, their simple flavor profiles and their supposed lack of sophistication. BuzzFeed asks if we can all agree that hotdish and a slew of other foods associated with the Midwest are, in fact, “gross,” and Redditors aren’t quick to disagree. But is it really about the dish itself? Or is there something more sinister simmering under the surface?

Hotdish first burst onto the culinary scene in the 1930s, and since then, it has been attributed to a cookbook compiled by members of the Grace Lutheran Church Ladies Aid in Mankato, Minnesota. Although this early iteration of the dish did not include commercially produced tater tots, potatoes, pasta or other starches were used in their place. As the Great Depression pinched the pocketbooks of working people across the country, hotdish was solidified as a cheap meal that allowed families to stretch expensive ingredients such as meat. It was also a shareable dish, a dish meant to be enjoyed at church potlucks in the presence of community.

Hotdish remains popular today for the same reasons. Its shelf- or freezer-stability and inexpensive ingredients make it an ideal dinnertime staple when a home cook lacks the time or money to visit the grocery store to procure fresh produce. Not only does this kind of dish help families save money, it also helps household managers, which in traditional families are still overwhelmingly women, save time.

To me, the derision of casseroles and hotdish specifically reeks of classism. Is canned corn really that terrible, or do so-called “foodies” want to draw as much distance between themselves and budget food as possible? Are tater tots disgusting when they’re served at an expensive restaurant disguised as a dive bar, or are they only unappealing when you have to sneak them into your basket under the $4 head of broccoli for risk of being judged at your local Whole Foods?

Just make it from scratch! some will exclaim. But who, exactly, is making it from scratch? In many cases and in regions where hotdish is still served regularly, women are. Should household managers, who are still overburdened with the responsibilities of running a household and feeding a family even now in 2022, be required to do even more labor for their food to be deemed acceptable? We seem to have forgotten that though, yes, processed foods are problematic in many ways, they also freed women from laborious cooking rituals that essentially made them servants to their families. In the modern day, for many women, these responsibilities have not eased; they now just have to be juggled with a full-time career. Not every household manager has the luxury of a schedule that allows them to cook fresh meals from scratch every day, and those lacking that type of schedule are often stretched financially as well.

In dismissing hotdish, we also dismiss the ethos of the casserole. Hotdish and other casseroles like it are communal dishes; they are meant to be shared with community. More importantly, they are meant to be shared with community in a “third place,” a space that is not your home or your workplace but somewhere members of a community can convene without the exchange of capital. The spirit of hotdish is commensality, community and connectedness.

To me, hotdish isn’t just easy, filling and comforting on the coldest days of a Midwestern winter. It reminds me of my mother, who truly labored in love for my family, and other women who continue to face inequality not just in the workplace but also in their own homes. I hope that choosing to prepare hotdish one night a month gives women I love—and everyone who makes it—10 extra minutes for themselves, a miniscule break from lives of serving others.