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-sized cylinders, then fried them golden and crunchy.
Thus were born Ore-Ida Tater Tots.
As the last almost 60 years have proved, Grigg's little brainstorm — a plug of shredded potato 11/2 inches long, 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 have morphed from brand to cultural phenomenon. After all, what would the famed hot dish casserole of the northern Midwest be without that crowning layer of tots?
"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," says the resident of Edina, Minn. "I keep a package in the freezer at all times because I never know when I'm going to want to do something with them."
Tater Tots and its imitators long ago jumped from supermarket freezer cases to restaurant menus across North America. Many chefs make their own; home cooks can as well, thanks to recipes like Lara Ferroni's "Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats without All the Junk" (Sasquatch, $19.95).
Ferroni, an Oregon-based food writer, doesn't remember much junk food in the house as she was growing up in southern Georgia, but "there was always a bag of frozen Tater Tots in the freezer." While Tater Tots bring back childhood memories for her, they also have a very adult connotation as well.
"I live in Portland now, and you'd be amazed at how many bars have Tater Tots," she said.
Tots lend themselves to more refined dining applications too.
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, are 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."