Hotdish: Lutheran-land’s favorite dinner

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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.


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  1. Dianne Laferla says

    This recipe does not make sense. No liquid added to the soup and it is too dry as a result. The onion rings should be under the tater tots, not on the top because they get too brown. I had to slide it into another pan to have the onion rings move into the mix below, then made sure the tots were on top, plus added some cream (liquid) to the casserole evenly. That all did the trick to make it as it should be, delicious.

    • Fran Ginn says

      Dianne, thanks for your suggestions. I am a Southern cook who had never even heard of “hot dish” until Garrison Keillor talked about it on A Prairie Home
      Companion. The recipe I used was one I found online. Not knowing the finesse of adding liquid, my kitchen staff and I made it per recipe. I do confess that we are all just cooks who sometimes follow a recipe and sometimes just follow our instincts. I did not make the dish myself. That task went to my kitchen manager who is a wonderfully creative instinctual cook, so she may have added a liquid unbeknownst to me.

      The recipe was well received by our very Southern customers. Thank you for setting me straight. I will promptly amend the recipe to reflect your suggestions.

      All best wishes,
      Fran Ginn

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