My mom’s dynamite spaghetti sauce

MY MOM,  who died in 1984, wasn’t  much of a cook, so don’t look for this to be a nostalgic column about my mother’s wonderful homemade dishes.

I blame some of this on the fact that her own mother died when she was 6 and she didn’t have a mom role model growing up. But her father remarried when she was 12, to a nice woman with whom she got along well and called “Mama.” My grandma was a great cook, and 12 is prime time for girls to start taking an interest in cooking. So I can only conclude that my mom just wasn’t that interested.

I learned character, not cooking

While I didn’t learn lots of cooking tips and recipes at my mother’s knee, I did gain a lot of important character traits from her. Among those are:

Inclusiveness – My mom never disparaged people who were “different” from her, and made sure her children behaved the same way. She would not countenance racial or ethnic slurs, which were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, even among educated people. Although we lived in an all-white neighborhood – the integrated neighborhoods my parents would have preferred were beyond their budget – she made sure we attended multi-ethnic summer camps.

Progressiveness – My parents were staunch liberals and imparted the same values to my siblings and me. Mom was proud that she voted for Henry Wallace, the hopeless Progressive Party candidate, in the 1948 presidential election.

She was morally offended when government failed to help the most downtrodden segments of society or supported any form of censorship; the McCarthy era must have been very difficult for her. She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

She never crossed a picket line – except in 1972, when there was a long teacher’s strike in Philadelphia. She had qualified as a teacher late in life, after her children left home, and she felt the children had a stronger case than the teachers so she returned to substitute teaching before the strike was settled. (After that, she didn’t get many calls to sub.)

Curiosity – Mom was super-intelligent. She skipped at least one grade in elementary school and graduated from high school at 16. She liked to learn about lots of different things. She was always reading – not books so much as newspapers and magazines, including Life and Time and the Reader’s Digest. She wouldn’t just breeze through an issue, she’d read it cover-to-cover, absorbing every article. She imparted the same love of reading and curiosity about the world to me and my siblings.

Thrift – Born in 1921 in Poland and brought to Brooklyn at the age of two months, my mother was poor even before the Depression hit. She grew up learning how to make a little go a long way, and her children learned to be frugal as well.

Long before paper towel manufacturers created half-sized sheets, she’d slice a roll in half down to the cardboard tube so that we would use less. She taught us to save gift wrap and ribbons to reuse – but she’s the only person I know who washed and reused plastic wrap, something at which I draw the line. She clipped coupons religiously, something I do as well, though these days there are rarely any worth clipping.

Mom was one of the first people in Philadelphia to buy those coupon books (ours was called the Metro Passbook, similar to the Entertainment book), and we rarely went to a restaurant for which she didn’t have a coupon. She would have loved Groupon!

Forthrightness – My mom had strong opinions and never hesitated to let anyone know what they were. My friends and family say I am the same. In my earlier years I was often far too outspoken for my own good. I like to think I’ve learned some discretion and tact since then.

Keen hearing – My mom could be in another room, hear something someone would mutter under their breath and pipe up with a response. My husband tells me I’m just as bad.

How to fold pillowcases  – There’s only one correct way to fold pillowcases, and that’s to fold the short edge in half, then fold it lengthwise in half, and then again in threes. That’s it, end of discussion.

Even if Mom wasn’t a great cook, she fed her family well. We always had meat or chicken (or, rarely, fish), potatoes (or pasta or rice) and a vegetable (canned or frozen, never fresh) at every meal. We drank three glasses of milk every day, just like all the child-rearing experts said we should.

A dynamite spaghetti sauce

The best thing Mom cooked was meat sauce for spaghetti. This was back in the day when you couldn’t get decent sauce in a jar. All of us kids loved it. She always made enough for two meals.

I tinkered with the recipe a bit, substituting fresh garlic for the garlic powder Mom always used and diced tomatoes for tomato puree, which is hard to find these days. And olive oil wasn’t trendy; she used plain old vegetable oil. Times have changed, but this meat sauce is still better than anything you can get from Prego or Ragu.


Kubbah, an Iraqi Jewish dish for the Sabbath

Today’s piece was written by Maddee Sommers Kepes, who lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and dubs herself a “writer for all reasons.” Her articles have appeared in business periodicals, and her play, “Mean Girls,” has been seen by thousands of area middle schoolers.

Rimona Lieberman thinks of her grandmother whenever she makes kubbah, a Jewish Iraqi dish traditionally eaten on the Sabbath.

Rimona, who now lives in suburban Detroit, was born in Israel. But her mother’s family came from Iraq, a country they fled from in 1950 after the government instituted anti-Jewish policies.

A thriving community

The 2,700-year history of the Jews in the area now known as Iraq began when ancient Israelites were brought there as slaves by Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors.

By 500 C.E. the region had become a center of Jewish learning and home to the preeminent scholars who produced the Babylonian Talmud. During the Middle Ages the fate of the Jewish community bobbed on uncertain tides of tolerance and tyranny under the rule of a succession of conquerors: Persians, Mongols, Turks.

The British mandate over Iraq after World War I ushered in an era of modern nation building. Jews helped form the new nation’s judicial and postal systems and held government prominent positions. The first minister of finance, Sir Sassoon Eskell, was a Jew.

By 1932, when Iraq became an independent state, the “Israelite community” numbered upwards of 120,000, and Jews made up nearly one-third of Baghdad’s population.

It was about this time that Rimona’s maternal grandparents, Margalit and Jacob Abraham, left their family in Tehran and headed to Baghdad. Margalit had learned Hebrew at an early age and long dreamt of living in the Holy Land.

Hopeful that a Zionist organization in Baghdad would help them get to the Jewish homeland in what was then still called Palestine, they made the 430-mile journey through the mountains on foot. They narrowly survived kidnapping and the threat of death by forfeiting all their money and jewelry. They arrived in Baghdad broke and had to put their dream on hold.

One room, six children

They lived in the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad, in a single room with a dirt floor. There they raised their six children. Though poor, Margalit and Jacob both worked and saved for their journey to Palestine. The Jewish Quarter was a hive of communal life with Jewish schools, synagogues, kosher butchers and restaurants. Everyone knew each other. Business came to a halt every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as the entire community celebrated together.

Most Jewish families ate the same meals every week: kichree (lentils and rice) on Thursday, fried fish on Friday, kubbah on Saturday.

Kubbah are farina dough dumplings filled with meat. Rimona cooks them in a sweet and sour sauce made with beets and serves the dish over rice.

Kubbah can be made with fish, but  it was traditionally the once-a-week meat dish in the Iraqi Jewish diet.

The forgotten refugees

Life for Iraqi Jews deteriorated after the pro-Nazi coup of Rashid Ali, which sparked a pogrom in June 1941 during the Feast of Shavuot. Over two days armed mobs attacked Baghdad’s Jews, destroying homes, murdering hundreds and wounding nearly 1,000. Fortunately, Margalit’s family was not harmed.

A few years after the pogrom Jacob died leaving Margalit pregnant with their sixth child and alone to provide for her family.

The drive for a Jewish state triggered other incidents of anti-Jewish rioting. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism became a capital crime. Jews were imprisoned, tortured, dismissed from their jobs and stripped of their property. Some Iraqi Jews were evacuated and the rest fled. Today, fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq.

Margalit left Iraq with her six children in 1950 and made her way to Israel. She’s living there today at the age of 103.

She is just one of the 850,000 Jews who were expelled or forced to flee from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa since 1948. Most of the rest of the world is unaware of their story.

The state of Israel has designated November 30 as an annual, national day of commemoration for these forgotten refugees. Learn more about Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry.

The photo with the recipe is by Sarah Melamed, who writes a blog called Food Bridge: Bridging Cultures through Food.

“Fast” food to prepare for Yom Kippur


We Jews are often amazed to discover that in some faiths, “fast” means not eating meat for a day. They should try Yom Kippur sometime to know what a real fast is.

The Jewish Day of Atonement, this year, starts at sundown Friday October 3 and continues through nightfall Saturday. We fast the entire time. That means at least 25 hours with no food, no water. There’s only one other fast day like this in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There are also several “minor” fast days, usually commemorating some disaster of Jewish history, when no food or water is taken from sunrise to sundown, similar to the way Muslims observe the Ramadan fast. Fasting sunup to sundown is probably not too difficult, but it’s hard for non-Muslims to imagine doing that for 30 consecutive days. Especially in the summer when the days are 18 hours long, and hot!

Aside from Yom Kippur, which is widely observed, most of the Jewish fast days are little known and even less practiced outside of the Orthodox community.

A Biblical commandment

The commandment to fast on Yom Kippur comes from Leviticus (16:29-32):

In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.

Yom Kippur comes 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. Yes, the New Year starts on the first of the seventh month—that’s one of the oddities of the Jewish calendar I’ve never been able to figure out.

Supposedly, fasting also helps us free ourselves from the mundane concerns of everyday life—what to prepare for our next meal, and so on—and concentrate on the business of the day, which is atoning for the sins we committed during the past year, begging forgiveness and asking God for blessings in the new year. Of course what really happens is we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep our minds off of our growling stomachs, our dry mouths and our caffeine-withdrawal headaches.

What’s the best way to prepare?

The best way to prepare for a fast is a perennial fall topic in the Jewish community. Some eat a huge meal the night before, feeling that the extra calories will carry them through the day. Others don’t like feeling bloated; they feel eating a full meal without stuffing themselves will make the fast day more comfortable.

My husband and I used to start the fast with a meal that included salmon and cheesecake; it seemed to stave off the next day’s hunger pangs pretty well. For the last dozen years or more we’ve been preparing for the fast with a friend who has a severe dairy allergy, so no more cheesecake.

Now we usually start with chicken or lentil soup, then have chicken, potatoes or a noodle kugel (pudding) and lots of bread. This year I’m thinking of going back to salmon, perhaps with the easy and tasty recipe below.

I asked my Facebook friends what they do to start the fast. The winning choice was chicken, accompanied by potatoes or rice and vegetables; many also include chicken soup. Most include a dessert.

All agreed on some basics: don’t eat anything heavy or fatty, because it’s hard to digest, avoid salt and salty foods, and take in lots of liquids. Except for one friend who enjoys a shot of vodka, saying it puts her in a better mood, everyone agrees that alcohol before a fast is a bad idea.

Some experts advise eating lots of complex carbohydrates in the days leading up to a fast. Carbs help maintain energy and help the body absorb water.

From personal experience, I know that not drinking water, rather than not eating, is the hard part. One year I developed cystitis on Yom Kippur, and so while I continued to fast from food, I drank lots of water to help my system heal. That was the easiest fast I’d ever experienced, and I didn’t even feel hungry when it ended.

Caffeine headaches are a killer!

The worst part of the fast usually hits around 4 p.m., when there are still about four hours to go. It’s very common to get a whopping headache at this time, a combination of dehydration and caffeine withdrawal. To minimize that, I start cutting back on caffeine after Rosh Hashanah, which is 10 days before the fast. The week before Yom Kippur I transition to decaf coffee, and a few days before the fast, I stop drinking cola, tea or anything else with caffeine.

One commentator suggested that sniffing fragrant spices—cinnamon, cloves and the like—can help stave off hunger pangs. I think I’ll try it this year! Do any of you have tips for preparing for and surviving a fast?

Care to read more about Yom Kippur? In addition to my column today, you’ll enjoy this column that provides a broader overview of the observance. (And, yes, the co-author of that column Joe Lewis is my husband.)

An urban fish farm and a great tilapia recipe

Editor’s note: Picking up on something I wrote a few weeks ago, about sustainable and responsible fish farming, I thought I’d tell you about one of two fish farms that recently opened in depressed areas of Detroit. (In addition, a University of Michigan graduate student opened a shrimp farm in a vacant Detroit house.) I recently visited the CDC Farm and Fishery and was very impressed. The fishery uses only organic food for the fish, and no antibiotics, making them much better for human consumption than the tilapia farmed in China and South America, which account for most of the tilapia eaten in the U.S. It’s run by a faith-based nonprofit. Maybe the idea can be exported to other urban areas! This article, by Matthew Lewis (no relation), is used by permission of Model D, a Detroit online newspaper that published it on May 20, 2014. 

Grown in Detroit, but not in the ground:
The next evolution of urban agriculture

Just south of Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood—ironically positioned across from a “you buy, we fry” fish joint—is the first functioning commercial aquaponics operation within the city of Detroit, Central Detroit Christian‘s (CDC) Farm and Fishery.

Not only is CDC Farm and Fishery the city’s first functioning aquaponics operation, it’s also the first agriculture business to receive a special land use permit authorized under the city’s recently adopted Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The operation is also licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Farm and Fishery operates in a colorfully painted building that recently housed a party store. CDC purchased the building two years ago and began converting it into the two-level aquaponics operation where plants and fish are being cultivated simultaneously and symbiotically today.

From beer coolers to hydroponic beds

On the ground floor, rows of beer coolers and shelves were removed to make way for rows of hydroponic beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Today, grow lights slide on tracks above the beds, 90 percent of which are filled with basil.

Recently, CDC added a multi-tiered stand for growing microgreens to a corner of the ground floor. “Basil and microgreens are tremendously lucrative,” says Anthony Hatinger, CDC’s production and garden manager.

In the building’s basement are several large tanks holding approximately 4,500 tilapia fish in various stages of growth, all of which are the offspring of one male and two females (CDC has five female breeding fish, but only two have successfully reproduced). Two smaller tanks, one containing a bed of worms and another bacteria that work together as a “biofilter,” convert fish waste produced inside the growing tanks into nitrate-enriched water that is cycled upstairs to the plant beds, fertilizing the herbs.

“We don’t use fertilizers besides the fish,” says Hatinger. “We don’t use pesticides or other chemicals. We use organic practices and organic seeds, though we’re not certified organic because it costs too much.” CDC even uses organic, non-GMO fish food. Hatinger, a Lansing-area native, fell in love with Detroit when he first attended the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (the free festival superseded by Movement) when he was in high school.

He moved to Detroit just over a year ago after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in religious studies and a minor in horticulture. He also obtained a specialization in sustainable agriculture and food systems. So when the opportunity to work for CDC on the city’s first functioning aquaponics operation presented itself, it was a perfect fit.

Faith-based and food-based

A faith-based nonprofit community Development corporation, Central Detroit Christian manages eight socially-driven, for-profit businesses (LC3s). Several of these businesses are food-based, including CDC Farm and Fishery; Cafe Sonshine, a healthy soul food restaurant; and Peaches and Greens, a neighborhood produce market.

“The goal is to create jobs and be a force of change in the neighborhood by creating a community of choice,” says Hatinger. “We’re offering a very niche agricultural skillset to people who don’t necessarily have a good outlook for employment.”

At full production, CDC Farm and Fishery will employ around a dozen neighborhood residents and will be open 18 hours per day for three six-hour shifts. Hatinger estimates workers will harvest an average of 100 fish per week, each fish yielding between 0.5 and 0.75 pounds of filet meat that will sell at between $7 and $8 per pound.

Currently, CDC Farm and Fishery’s micro greens and herbs can be purchased at the Grown in Detroit stand on Saturdays at Eastern Market. CDC has also supplied pop-up chefs at Corktown’s St. Cece’s and Hamtramck’s (revolver) restaurant. CDC recently brought on Megan Husch as the Farm and Fishery’s general manager. She is tasked with marketing and selling their products to local purchasers, which could include restaurants, hotels, and food distributors. 

A visit to Northern Ireland and a recipe for Fish and Chips

We recently returned from a week in Northern Ireland. We went almost on a whim. Our son, Aaron Jonah Lewis, was in the midst of a four-month tour of the Ireland, the UK and Europe with his bluegrass band, the Corn Potato String Band. My husband said, “Let’s go to Belfast and surprise Aaron at his gig.” So we did. (It was a great show, and he was surprised!)

Joe has been a little leery of doing anything Irish. As an Englishman by birth, he’s afraid of enmity-by-association. Of course in Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, which joins Great Britain to make up the United Kingdom, being associated with Mother England isn’t such a drawback.

As outsiders to the Catholic-Protestant divide, we’ve always wondered how they could tell each other apart. It’s a cliché, but they all look the same to me! We didn’t get an answer to that question, but I suspect it has a lot to do with one’s name–first and last–where one lives and maybe even where one works. Neighborhoods and schools are still extremely sectarian.

Laughter is the best medicine

But there’s none of the violence long associated with Northern Ireland, and residents are now able to laugh at themselves and at the great divide between the factions. One evening we went to a play, Can’t Forget About You, at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. It was a raunchy comedy about a young Protestant Belfast resident, dumped by his girlfriend, who takes up with an older woman and the reactions of his prim and proper mother and politically active older sister, full of lines poking fun at Protestants and Catholics alike.

Another night we went to a comedy show, where the emcee and the guests all cracked jokes about Protestants and Catholics and their historic hatred for each other as the audience howled with laughter.

Derry—or Londonderry?

We took a day trip to Derry. Even the name is contentious. When English and Scots were brought to Northern Ireland in the early 1600s in what’s called the “plantation,” they renamed what was then the small village of Doire (pronounced “Derry”) Londonderry. Irish Republicans (mainly Catholics who want to unite with the Republic of Ireland) still call it by its original name. Now on train and bus schedules you’ll see Derry/Londonderry, an effort to please everyone. We took a walking tour of Derry, a lovely town with an intact 17th-century city wall.

Our guide gave us a brief history of the sectarian violence known as The Troubles: how the Protestants (of English and Scots ancestry) held all the political power; how the Catholics (of Irish ancestry), tired of poor housing and poor jobs, held demonstrations for civil rights in the late 1960s based on the model developed by Martin Luther King; how sectarian strife led to rioting in 1969, which led the overwhelmed Royal Ulster Constabulary to ask for assistance from the British army–which came and stayed for more than 30 years. The British army was originally welcomed by both sides as a force for keeping the peace. Then came Bloody Sunday in 1972, when the British soldiers fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing 13 innocent people and wounding 13 more. Membership in the Irish Republican Army grew exponentially, and the bloodshed continued.

Few old buildings

Why are there so few old buildings in Derry? The IRA had bombed many of them, said our guide, causing irreparable damage. It took until 2010 for the British government to admit the army was at fault in Bloody Sunday and to apologize to the families of the victims. The barbed wire barricades, checkpoints and British army barracks are long gone. But The Troubles are remembered in the famous Bogside Murals, in the Catholic Bogside area. One of the earliest, The Death of Innocence, memorializes 14-year-old schoolgirl Annette McGavigan, killed by British soldiers in 1971 when she was caught in crossfire. Another, the Peace Mural, combines images suggested by Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren.

Everyone–Catholic and Protestant–was relieved when peace was brokered in the Good Friday agreement that was signed in 1998, our guide told us. The IRA agreed to disarm. The British government agreed to structural changes that would provide more civil and cultural rights for the Catholic community. The British army left.

A reason to hope

Walking through peaceful Derry gave us hope that the Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to resolve their differences as well.

We didn’t eat much traditional Irish food, but we did enjoy some fantastic fish and chips, that quintessential British fast food, from a dumpy little shop in the small town of Coleraine, where we had an hour and a half to wait between trains. And, today, I am going to share with you a good recipe for fish and chips.

The secret to crispy chips (French fries) is to cook them twice. Cook the first time until they’re barely starting to brown, then remove them and drain on brown paper. Just before serving, put them back in the oil for a few minutes to brown, then drain again.

For the true British experience, sprinkle the fish and chips with salt and malt vinegar. For an even more British experience, serve with “mushy peas,” which are exactly what they sound like: mushed up canned peas. (That’s a little too British for me!)

You’ll note that this recipe calls for a lot of oil for frying. Know that you can keep the oil and reuse it for deep frying—just add a little fresh oil each time. When we lived in London way back in our carefree eating days, we had a wonderful non-electric deep-fryer pot with a basket to hold and drain the food. We enjoyed fresh chips with almost every dinner!

Stalking the ordinary celery

A NOTE FROM YOUR HOST BOBBIE LEWIS: This week’s blog is by guest author Louis Finkelman (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home. It originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

I found a cookbook that describes a classical French combination, mirepoix, as a finely-diced mixture of onions, carrots and celery, simmered or sautéed. The writer explains what each ingredient adds to the mixture. According to this sophisticated expert, the celery adds texture, but does not add much in the way of flavor, since celery basically has very little flavor.

Go to the supermarket and you can find celery that proves his point. In fact, you cannot find any other kind of celery in the supermarket. The thick, heavy stalks of celery, with their creamy color, just barely green, gently whisper the secret information about their flavor, “we taste of celery.” The green leaves have a strong, bitter flavor, but who uses the leaves of celery?

Visiting my son and his family in Israel, some years ago, I made the trip to his local Shufrasol supermarket. The celery there did not look like American celery. It had little, thin stalks, all a deep dark bright green. When we got home and used the celery in recipes, it did not taste like American supermarket celery either: rather than whispering, it shouted. It yelled, “I AM CELERY! HEAR ME ROAR!” In a soup, in a stew, in a casserole, a few snips of celery sufficed to make a bold statement.

My growing affinity for celery

I started growing celery at home, in my little backyard vegetable garden. My garden celery comes up much more like its assertive Israeli relations than the kind in American supermarkets. It comes up small, but powerful. It has an attitude.

This year, during my annual trip to the farm supply store to pick up my vegetables, I got a quick lesson in why we have such different versions of celery. The manager of the store directed me to find “ordinary celery.” I commented that “it does not seem ordinary to me. It does not taste like supermarket celery.”

American commercial growers (according to the manager of the farm supply store) irrigate their celery heavily to get those big, bland stalks. I read somewhere that growers even put shades on parts of the celery plant so that it does not develop too much flavor.

I thought about that quest for celery without too much flavor. That goes along with preferring white bread to rye or whole wheat. It goes along with cutting off the crust of sandwiches. It resonates with preferring white meat to dark. Turkeys raised for meat usually have been bred for so much white meat that they move about awkwardly. Their huge breasts so limit their motion that they need artificial insemination. All this happens in the search for less intense flavor. It all goes together. It rhymes.

Appearance over substance

In a way, that quest for less intensive flavor matches the quest for perfect appearance. No doubt, the big, creamy, thick celery has a certain visual appeal that the small, thin, dark green stuff cannot match. The huge red strawberries in the market all look beautiful; sometimes they taste like strawberries, too. The only apples available in the supermarket look like wax models of apples: big, flawless, shiny. They come in bright red or bright green. Though growers have identified hundreds or thousands of different varieties of apple, our selection at the market usually gets restricted to the three or four prettiest. I will not even mention tomatoes. Some of us do not share the preference for bland and pretty. Those who seek intense, complex flavors have to look for produce at ethnic shops, or farmers’ markets or just grow our own.

When it comes to people, too — do I have to spell this out? — we might make an effort to overcome our resistance and put up with people who have too much flavor and too imperfect an appearance. We might find our best companions, our wisest guides and our most promising students. They might make our lives more interesting.

Editor’s note:  A mirepoix is a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrot and one part celery, roughly chopped and cooked slowly in a bit of oil until the onion is translucent. This recipe, from a contributor named Gordon on the website, uses a mirepoix with braised chicken breasts. You can cook up mirepoix ahead of time and use it to add to soups or stews. The photo with the recipe is by naples34102, another Allrecipes contributor. 

Hotdish: Lutheran-land’s favorite dinner

This week’s guest blogger is Fran Ginn, whom I have never met. When I started this blog—a year ago now!—my “ideas” list included hotdish, an integral part of Lutheran culture (well at least according to Garrison Kiellor). When I did the obligatory Google search on the term, I found a piece by Fran that said everything I wanted to say and probably said it better. It appeared on the website of the  Marion County Informer newspaper in Mississippi. The newspaper is now defunct, and the link to the article no longer works, but I tracked Fran down via Facebook and she sent me a copy, along with permission to use it. Fran is a good writer and cook who runs a restaurant called the Back Door Cafe in Hattiesburg, Miss.  It’s in a historic building and is accessible, via an alley, by (you guessed it) the building’s back door. One final note: In Lutheran-ese, “hotdish” is also a synonym for “potluck,” as in “The Ladies Guild will hold its annual Hotdish Supper on Friday.”

Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Woebegon have long been a favorite of mine. The stories of the stalwart Scandinavian Lutherans of Minnesota always make me smile. I noticed that Garrison often mentions “hotdish.” He uses it in several contexts, including jokes, such as:  “You must be Lutheran—if you think anyone who says ‘casserole’ instead of ‘hotdish’ is trying to be uppity (or maybe even Episcopalian!)” Or: “You must be Lutheran—if you think ‘hotdish’ is one of the major food groups.”

I went right to the source, the Prairie Home Companion website, where I found an explanation of “hotdish” from Garrison himself. These are his words:

It’s a meal in one dish, vegetables and grain and perhaps meat, and it’s good peasant cooking and it exists in every culture. Surely you ate it growing up. It might have rice or noodles and it needs some sauce and then you add what ingredients you are moved to add. Be inventive. If you want to start with a classic, do the tuna noodle hotdish, which employs a can of cream of mushroom soup (don’t add water), a can of tuna, a bag of egg noodles, and perhaps a package of frozen peas. Cook the noodles, glop in the soup, add the tuna and peas, and if you want to be fancy, crush some potato chips for a topping.”

Ubiquitous in the northern Midwest

As I explored further, I learned that hotdish did originate in the basement halls of Lutheran churches in the frozen northern states, especially Minnesota. It is as ubiquitous there as rice and gravy is in the South.

In the early days of the last century, farm wives discovered a new ready-made ingredient: cream of mushroom soup. This miracle ingredient gained such favor with the church ladies of the region that it became known as “Lutheran binder” and was considered a de rigueur ingredient in recipes submitted for church cookbooks. As flavors of condensed cream soups were added, it became fashionable to combine flavors of soup in the same hotdish. As time passed, home-cut potatoes and onions gave way to Tater Tots, canned French-fried onion rings and chow mein noodles.

I have been told that confession is good for the soul—and I have to admit this is hard for me—but I must disclose that one of my favorite dishes in the world is the green bean casserole recipe on the side of the onion ring can. And, I love Tater Tots with a passion usually reserved for things like lobster.

It’s easy to make

It is easy to see how hotdish became so popular in the frozen north. The basic ingredients often were ground meat (from a cow raised on the farm and butchered and in the freezer), canned soup, canned corn or the canned vegetable mixture known as “Veg-All,” and some type of starch, noodles, rice or potatoes, all grocery items that could be purchased in bulk and stored in a pantry when deep snow made the trek into town difficult.

In the early days, these farm wives used few foreign spices, such as thyme or (God forbid!) Tabasco. Common seasonings were good, plain salt and pepper. As time passed, the inventive Lutheran ladies began to vary their ingredients. A search of recipes on the Internet shows some the range of hotdish variations:

  • Sauerkraut Hotdish
  • Reuben Hotdish
  • Chicken Crouton Hot Dish
  • Pasta Ham Hotdish
  • Creamy Chicken Hotdish
  • Pepperoni and Tomato Hotdish
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken Hotdish
  • Tater Tot Hotdish
  • Church Supper Hotdish
  • Hamburger Hotdish
  • Mashed Potato Hotdish
  • Hula Hotdish (Spam and pineapple)
  • Cheeseburger and French Fry Hotdish
  • Wild Rice and Sausage Hotdish

Midwest Living, which I gather is similar to our Southern Living, has more than 50 different recipes for hotdish.

Can you name the No. 1 condiment for hotdish? It’s ketchup.

To give you an idea of how dear this very basic food is to the hearts of the people of Minnesota, I’d like to leave you with a very tongue-in-cheek version of the Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as sung on A Prairie Home Companion.

Hark, the herald angels sing Is there hotdish we can bring?
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
Tuna hotdish, family style.
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Casseroles and shepherd’s pies –
With angelic hosts proclaim,
This is really good chow mein.
Hark the herald angels sing,
Is there hotdish we can bring?

The best hotdish ever?

This week’s recipe is touted as the best hotdish recipe ever. It draws on a number of the delicious, carb-laden ingredients that are popular in this food group. For this version of the recipe, we have amended the more bland seasonings from “up North,” and spiced up this hotdish Southern style.

A note from Bobbie: Fran didn’t have a photo of her hotdish recipe, so I found this one online. It’s a little different in that the Tater Tots are atop the green beans, rather than beneath them. I think this makes sense, since the Tater Tots will get crispier that way, but I present Fran’s original recipe.