By Annie Prafcke
AUSTIN, Texas – As a Chinese-American, connecting to my culture through food is essential, and no dish brings me back to my mother’s kitchen quite like hotdish. Yes, you heard me right – that Midwestern mashup of mystery meat, creamy Campbell’s soup, frozen veggies and of course, tater tots.
While I identify wholeheartedly as Chinese, I am also adopted and deeply tied to my North Dakotan roots. I now live in Texas and have found that while growing up in North Dakota, my Asianness was my primary marker of difference; outside of the state, my prairie origins set me apart.
Shortly after moving from Fargo, North Dakota to Austin, Texas in 2021, I attended the Hiking For Tacos meetup, a get-together for locals and transplants that entailed walking through a park, eating at a taco chain and sipping bar-side margaritas. At these gatherings, I was usually one of the few Midwesterners and always the sole North Dakotan. At one such meeting, I introduced myself, saying I was from Fargo. Someone responded that they had heard of this strange regional dish containing tuna, pasta and potato chips. My ears perked up, recognizing the winter delicacy that is tuna casserole.
While Midwesterners are pros at self-deprecating humor, I felt the need to defend the casserole – or as we North Dakotans and Minnesotans call it – hotdish. It was a childhood staple and one of my favorite home-cooked meals. We even have a festival for it in Fargo, Hotdish Fest, which recently celebrated its fifth year at Drekker Brewing Company.
Hailey Von Wald, Supreme Experience Conductor at Drekker and part of the team that organized this year’s Hotdish Fest, says, “ . . . when you're from New York, there's a lot of things that you can brag about that are really cool. And we maybe don't have those things here. You know, we don't have Broadway, we don't have these Michelin five star restaurants . . . we stand out with hotdish.”
I have met other Asian Americans who recall painful memories of getting teased in school for bringing kimchi or seaweed for lunch. As a Chinese adoptee raised by a white family, I never had this experience (although my Asianness was targeted in other ways). Yet, after this meetup, I wondered if that was how it felt to feel ashamed of a food closely tied to your identity.
Today, I write with pride that I am a Midwesterner at heart and I love hotdish – here’s how you can too.
Tip #1: Change Your Expectations
When I tell non-Midwesterners I’m from North Dakota, their response usually falls into one of three categories: 1. a joke about whether people actually live there; 2. an exclamation that they saw Mount Rushmore (wrong Dakota); 3. an inquiry about whether it’s cold (Why do you think I moved to Texas?).
Unfortunately, these low expectations of the Midwest also apply to the food. I have even heard fellow Midwesterners call Midwest cuisine “trash food” jokingly. But, like all regional food, hotdish has a history and I promise, it’s not as exotic as it seems.
To clarify, the first written hotdish recipe may have originated from the 1930 “Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook” from Mankato, Minnesota, according to “Food & Wine” magazine. Hotdish is essentially a casserole, a single-dish meal using on-hand ingredients. Some bloggers try to distinguish between hotdish and casserole (supposedly hotdishes require cream-based soup, protein, starch, veggies and a crunchy topping) but let’s be honest, it’s a similar concept.
Hotdish is indisputably ugly, but trust me, taste outweighs appearance. As Molly Yeh, food blogger and host of Food Network’s show “Girl Meets Farm,” writes on her blog, ”. . . if you were to place the other [hotdishes] on an x/y chart where x = how much it looks like barf, and y = how delicious it is, they would be maxed out on both accounts.”
Tip #2: Hotdish Is for Sharing
My childhood hotdish-eating memories involve my single mom, whose home-cooked meals sustained my sister and me on busy weeknights. Over text, my mom told me she liked making hotdishes because they’re cheap and involve minimal brain power. “The whole point of casseroles is that they are dump and bake – quick prep and then 30 minutes or so in the oven,” she wrote.
Between my mom’s work schedule, my rock climbing, dance lessons and orchestra concerts, and my sister’s cello lessons, choir rehearsals and theater performances, we ate few family meals together. But even if I was eating alone, it was comforting to go to the stove and find my mom’s fresh-baked tuna casserole or steaming tater tot hotdish awaiting me.
In the KSMQ public television documentary, “Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story,” multiple Minnesotans emphasize the ties between hotdish and family. In the documentary, comedian and writer Pat Dennis explains the association her Minnesotan audiences have between hotdish and family. She says, “. . . it’s every time they’ve had this hotdish with their kids or their grandma . . . hotdish isn’t a food. Hotdish basically is a memory.”
Hotdishes by nature are large, so invite family, friends and neighbors (and tell them to bring their Tupperware).
Tip #3: Add Your Own Flair
While hailed as the prototypical Midwestern food, I realize that hotdish reflects a certain demographic (i.e. white, Northern European, Lutheran). When I asked my friend Teresa Calderon, a Minneapolis-based pharmacy coordinator, if she had ever tried tater-tot hotdish, she responded via Facebook messenger, “No lol.” Calderon is a Mexican-American Chicago native but we attended the same Minnesota college (which serves tater tot hotdish by the way). I thought it was plausible that she had at least tasted it. Calderon said she remembers a friend bringing hotdish to a potluck once but she was hesitant to try it. She said it sounded “really bland and odd,” completely different from the well-seasoned Mexican food her family made for her growing up.
I also reached out to my friend Ronald Yee-Mon, a Chinese Trinidadian retired pastor who says he has lived in North Dakota for over 35 years. Over text, he said he never had anything like hotdish in his native Trinidad. As for the taste? “Better left unsaid,” he responded.
After I left the Midwest, I became interested in branching out from Midwestern cuisine. Part of me tried to push away some of my North Dakotan, so that I had room to explore my Chinese side.
But I have learned that neither my Midwestern upbringing nor my hankering for tater tots can be quelled. Instead, I embrace the blend.
About four years ago, in a Fargo bookstore, I discovered Molly Yeh’s cookbook, “Molly on the Range.” Yeh, who lives on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, draws on her Chinese and Jewish heritage to spice up Midwestern classics. I was thrilled to discover her “wild rice hotdish with ras el hanout and dates” for a Thanksgiving I had with my family and my boyfriend, who is from Morocco. Adding ras el hanout – a Moroccan spice mix consisting of spices like cumin, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric – to hotdish seemed like a great way to incorporate flavors from all of our childhoods.
In an impromptu interview with him while he washed the dishes, I asked him if he liked that hotdish. He said the flavor was good, although it didn’t taste Moroccan. Next time, he hopes to add more spice, packing it with saffron.
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