The Brothers Grigg had just started a frozen food company to make, among other things, french fries. But what to do with the scraps of spud left behind? These potato pieces were too small for proper fries, but there were too many of them to be discarded. One day in 1953, F. Nephi Grigg came up with a delicious solution: He chopped up the potato scraps, shaped them into bite-size cylinders, then fried them golden and crunchy.
Thus were born Ore-Ida Tater Tots.
Almost 60 years later, Grigg’s brainstorm – a plug of shredded potato 1 1/2 inches long and 7/8 inch in diameter – has been an enormous success. An estimated 3.5 billion Tater Tots are eaten by Americans every year, according to Max Wetzel, associate marketing director for Ore-Ida.
Tater Tots are so golden, they’ve morphed from brand to cultural phenomenon.
“It’s just a wonderful comfort food,” says Ann L. Burckhardt, author of “Hot Dish Heaven: Classic Casseroles from Midwest Kitchens.”
“It’s a tremendously handy potato item that people can use to put together a meal. I keep a package in the freezer at all times.”
Tater Tots and its imitators long ago jumped from supermarket freezer cases to restaurant menus.
In Charlotte, there are Parmesan Rosemary Tots served with the beer-battered cod at Heist Brewery. And no take-out box from Price’s Chicken Coop would be complete without the flat discs of fried potato that are definitely in the tot family.
But the real Tater Tot queen of Charlotte is chef/owner Fran Scibelli of Fran’s Filling Station, who features bacon-wrapped Tater Tots as an appetizer at both her Park Road restaurant and her new restaurant space in the 7th Street Public Market.
“When I first opened, I was trying to figure out a great appetizer – what could you wrap with bacon that hasn’t been done?” Tots weren’t such a far leap, she says. “In college, anytime we had Tater Tots was a big deal.”
The fondness for tots runs in the family. Scibelli’s brother Frank serves Golden Brown Tater Tots as an appetizer at his Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar restaurants.
Fran Scibelli takes her version even farther with the glaze on the bacon: maple syrup, black pepper, rosemary and a little ginger. That lifts it from a childhood treat to “grownup flavors.”
Scibelli isn’t afraid to admit that she uses real, frozen tots instead of making the potato plugs herself.
“Listen, I looked at a million recipes. It’s not that easy to do.”
And when a new version, made from sweet potatoes, came on the market, she was able to add a second version with jalapeno and bacon. She serves them together in a cone as a Tater Tot duo: “An amazingly sexy presentation.”
At HauteDish in Minneapolis, chef Landon Schoenefeld has a “Tater Tot HauteDish” on the menu. It’s a play not just on the wording but the innards of the dish itself.
“Tater Tot hot dish is an iconic Minnesota dish,” he said. “Typically it’s made with ground beef and green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup with Tater Tots on top.” Schoenefeld’s version is both more refined and deconstructed, resulting in a dish rooted in the familiar but presented in a new way: braised short rib subbing for the ground beef, a porcini bechamel sauce in lieu of the canned mushroom soup, French haricots verts replacing green beans.
The kicker, he said, is the three tots crowning the plate. Each tot is “essentially a croquette,” Schoenefeld said, a cheesy mashed potato bite that is shaped by hand, fried to set the outer crust and then baked to melt the insides.
“Easily it is our most popular dish,” said the chef, who estimates he’s sold 20,000 plates in the two years HauteDish has been open. Today’s price? $24.
“People don’t blink an eye,” Schoenefeld said. “It reminds them of a dish they grew up on.”
Observer food writer Kathleen Purvis contributed.
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