They came with dishes made of glass, ceramic, indestructible Pyrex, each filled with a confluence of chunky, creamy, crunchy ingredients. They stuffed them with wild rice, shredded chicken, ground beef, canned cream soups, vegetables straight out of the freezer section. They topped them with Tater Tots, French fries, onion strings, biscuits, cheese. They baked them, maybe broiled, the heat caramelizing the mostly beige toppers.
But what was really inside these Minnesotans’ cookware was life: welcomes, condolences, sustenance, survival, social glue. In other words: hot dish.
What people in most other parts of the country call casserole, Minnesotans call hot dish. And by granting it that warm and comforting moniker, they make it mean so much more than simply a baked mess of whatever’s in the pantry. Here, hot dish is not just dinner; it’s a way of life.
“Hot dish represents down-home, it represents home cooking, it represents lack of pretense, it represents do-it-yourself. And I think all of those things speak to Minnesota,” said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who joined a couple of hundred northeast Minneapolitans one recent Sunday for Hotdish Revolution, an annual community cook-off.
Hot dish’s origins are humble, with many aficionados citing it as a farm wife’s easy fix on supper, or an economical cook’s chance to use up what’s in the refrigerator. In “Prairie Home Cooking,” Judith Fertig describes it as “the sort of meal a harried mother or disinterested cook might throw together.”
But the beauty of hot dish is that it is easily adaptable and always changing, unfussy and endlessly customizable.
“One thing I’ve begun to embrace is the comfort and the democracy of the 9-by-13-inch pan,” said Amy Thielen, the Food Network star who included a hot dish recipe in her cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table.”
“It’s shareable, it’s portable and everything is already cut up,” she added. “It doesn’t pose any barriers.”
The Minnesota State Fair has taken it out of the dish and put it onto a stick. At high-end restaurant Haute Dish, it’s been re-imagined with short ribs and porcini alongside house-made potato croquettes.
And at St. Maron Church’s Cedars Hall, where cooks entered their dishes into six categories for judging at Hotdish Revolution, the offerings ran the gamut. The classics: chicken and wild rice; Tater Tots on top of creamy veggies. The basic: orange-tinted Kraft macaroni and cheese; straight-up spaghetti and tomato sauce. The experimental: fried chicken and Minnesota wild rice waffles with sriracha candied bacon (yes, please).
Thai spot Sen Yai Sen Lek donated several aluminum pans of hot dish with a twist: yellow curry.
“I was trying to think about what hot dish is, and trying to incorporate what Sen Yai Sen Lek is, as well,” said owner Joe Hatch-Surisook. That included merging potatoes, carrots and coconut milk — the usual curry fare — with cream of mushroom soup and melted cheese cubes. Hatch-Surisook even opted for canned sliced mushrooms rather than fresh ones. On top, French’s French-fried onions.
“In the spirit of the whole thing, you take some ingredients that are convenience ingredients and incorporate it with some things to make a dish that can heartily feed a family,” he said.
Just don’t expect to find the curry hot dish on the menu at the restaurant. “We don’t use those ingredients,” he said.
Hot dish evolution?
For some fans of hot dish, nostalgia is a tastier ingredient than some of the staples. Cream soup, also known as “Lutheran binder,” seems to be a hang-up for some by today’s more healthful standards. Then there’s the traditionally bland seasoning of hot dish, which seems primed for an update.
“Spicy” was one of the judging categories at Hotdish Revolution, “which is sort of a joke, because we’re Minnesotans,” said Adelheid Koski, the event’s organizer.
Robyn Swenson, a Northeast resident who sampled more than a dozen hot dishes on one paper plate, said her favorites were the ones that packed the most punch — including Sen Yai Sen Lek’s curry dish.
“We want hot dish to be more,” Swenson said. “We grew up with green beans, Tater Tots. We want more international flavors, modern for the current century.”
There is plenty of opportunity for hot dish to evolve, said Ian Pierce, a chef at Barrio in St. Paul who won at Hotdish Revolution so many times that organizers made him a judge for life.
Pierce won once with a spicy mole chicken dish. He mixed in green olives, and topped it with tortilla chips. And the tamales he makes at work, he says, are like “an inside-out hot dish.”
“Nothing is out of bounds,” he said.
As an accordionist stretched and shrunk his music box’s bellows in the church hall, and the lines of tasters continued to move along a wall of folding tables topped with casserole dishes, the Tater Tots and the crispy onions disappeared first. Then, the mushy stuff below got scooped up until, in true Minnesota fashion, just one tiny bite of each remained.
Thousands of dish towels later
Hotdish Revolution is just one expression of love for this old, reliable Minnesotan main course. Though closely associated with church potlucks and the family table, it has managed to leave its warm and gooey stamp everywhere Minnesotans go. That includes the U.S. Capitol, where Minnesota’s congressional delegation has held a hot dish contest three years running.
Local artists have rendered it into pop art and potholders. Adam Turman, whose murals grace several Twin Cities buildings, designed a poster inspired by the cover of a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook with a woman holding up a fresh-out-of-the-oven hot dish “from the Midwest with love.” Turman eventually printed the image onto pillowcases, and they sold out, putting dreams of piping hot one-pot meals through Minnesotans’ sleeping heads.
“It’s a whole culture,” Turman said.
Almost 20 years ago, Faye Passow mocked up a map of Minnesota with various flavors of hot dish hovering over different towns. Since then, she’s sold 16,000 dish towels printed with the design.
“People always look to see what’s in their town, and there’s usually a comment, ‘Well, you know, [grumbles] … ’ ” she said. But the print’s popularity prevails. “Everyone wants Tater Tot or green bean, those seem to be the big two.”
Hot dish even inspires poetry. One of the features of Hotdish Revolution was a haiku contest.
The winning entry: “Revolution yeah/ Beans and tots and beer oh my/ Gramma is smiling.”
Winner Matthew O’Brien’s prize: a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.