The Reason Midwesterners Love Hot Dish So Much

Deeply ingrained in Midwest culture is something fantastic, beloved and covered in Tater Tots. Here's to the hot dish and all the reasons we love it.

Tater Tots CasserolePhoto: Shutterstock / Andrea Skjold Mink

It was a staple on Midwest tables during a certain era, and many would argue it still holds a permanent spot at family get-togethers and church basement lunches today. The 13×9 pan is unmistakable—its signature topping of crisp Tater Tots and enough shredded cheddar cheese to fill one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes hides whatever is beneath like the mystery that it’s meant to be.

It’s hot dish (aka hotdish), and no, it’s not the same as a casserole. I mean, it’s pretty close. It’s like the twin sister, but they dress really differently.

A hot dish history

First off, if you’re from the Midwest, or not, and have never heard of hot dish, you’re not alone. The term hot dish is typically utilized in the upper parts of Minnesota and North Dakota because people up there like to coin their own verbiage, much like “uff da” or “you betcha.” You probably called it a casserole, like this one, and, not to sound like a hot dish snob, but the parameters of hot dish are a bit more limited than its mainstream counterpart. Whereas one can have something fancy like a tuna noodle casserole or a green bean casserole, these are not hot dishes. Hot dishes are not a type of food—the are the food. You don’t need to specify what’s inside it; you just need to trust.

I speak from experience, growing up in Wisconsin and spending a lot of time on my grandparent’s farm in northern Minnesota. My memories of being served hot dish as a kid at my grandparent’s dining room table revolve around gooey cheese—the best part, without question—and then typically avoiding the peas and carrots mix found underneath it because vegetables are kryptonite to kids (though you can disguise them pretty well in these recipes!). I never asked what the meat was. It was most likely one of the animals that I had at some point given a name to out in the fields.

My dad says my grandma served him hot dish several times a week growing up. He remembers it mostly consisting of ground beef, onions, potatoes, cream of mushroom soup and a bag of mixed frozen vegetables. “Sometimes it was made with chicken, or at least it looked like chicken. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what all the ingredients were in hot dish. But it always seemed to taste fine.”

Ah, the marker of stellar cuisine—it tasted fine. Must be why it’s survived so many generations.

Around 1953, the world was given the gift of Tater Tots. My dad would have been four. It probably took a while for them to hit the small-town grocery stores, but when they did, my dad says, “It was a real treat” to have them top the hot dish. Ah, the simpler times.

In today’s more organic/paleo/Whole30/almond milk world, hot dish is not as prevalent on dinner tables as it once was. But people love nostalgia, and even if we’re not buying cream soups in bulk anymore, there is still a special place in many of our hearts for this beloved meal. Case in point: restaurants like The Boiler Room in Fargo, N.D., and The Mason Jar in Eagan, Minn., tempt die-hards with a genuine Tater Tot hot dish on their menus. A store called I Like You in Minneapolis even encourages you to pledge your love for the creamy Tot dinner with a knit hat that reads, what else, “HOTDISH.”

Hot takes on hot dish

I decided to poll the Midwest masses to see what hot dish memories were imprinted in their childhoods and, I’m not going to lie, I sort of want to nix the grilled salmon tonight and dig into something covered in processed nuggets of shredded potatoes.

“When I was young, I was in charge of making dinner for dad and my siblings. My go-to hot dish was macaroni or rice hot dish, both were made with hamburger, corn or green beans and had cheese on top. My secret ingredient was a good squeeze of ketchup. And by the way, all hot dishes were served with bread and butter!” —Cheryl M.

“My mom could turn any leftovers in the fridge into a hot dish. She sometimes even got really fancy and would crush potato chips to go on top.” —Alicia A.

“My best memories of hot dish are that it usually contained whatever was easy and available in the fridge/freezer—usually hamburger, some sort of sauce, onions and a veggie, like frozen peas, beans or a good mix—and was ALWAYS topped with Tater Tots.” —Sara S.

“The only people I know who call it ‘hot dish’ are from Minnesota. In Ohio, we just called them casseroles.” —Deb W., not yet a hot dish convert

“When we made hot dish as a kid it was beef, cream of mushroom soup, green beans and Tater Tots on top, served with ketchup. Fast forward to meeting my husband, he did corn instead of green beans and his mom would put cheese on it. Fast forward to today, I do both veggies and half with cheese and half without!” —Kristen L.

“I still make it with leftovers in my house! I love it. I throw in things I find in my fridge or pantry that need to get used up, like ground hamburger with French onion soup mix. Layer it with carrots, potatoes, add cream of chicken soup and cheese and bake. My mom made them twice a week growing up.” —Katelyn M.

My mother-in-law made the best hot dish after Thanksgiving. She would cut up the leftover turkey, add a can of cream of chicken soup and mixed vegetables and after heating that up in the oven, she’d add three tablespoons of Miracle Whip and blend it all together. So very delicious and memorable.” —Susie D.

With all this in mind, I hope you’re inspired to toss together your own hot dish tonight—whether your’re in the Midwest or not. This recipe is a great template!

Craving those taters? Check out these tot recipes!
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Amanda Kippert
Amanda Kippert has been an award-winning freelance journalist for nearly two decades. She is based in Tucson, Arizona and specializes in food, health, fitness, parenting and humor, as well as social issues. She is the content editor of the domestic violence nonprofit DomesticShelters.org.