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Tater Tots: From Cattle Feed To Retro Cache


Northwest locavores—or local food advocates—would likely resist adding Tater Tots to their menu of regionally produced foods. But local they are.

Those crispy potato nuggets were invented on the Idaho/Oregon border, from what had been — cattle feed.  Yet the Tot has transcended it’s humble origins. It’s now appearing in trendy bars and restaurants all over America.  Guy Hand explains.


Tater TotsLoudspeaker Girl: "Welcome to Fancy Freeze.  Go ahead and order whenever you’re ready."

Guy Hand: "Could I  just get a small Tater Tot and that’s it?"

Loudspeaker Girl: "Sure, it’s going to be $1.58 at the window."

My relationship to Tater Tots is pretty much limited to burger joints.  But Atlanta Journal-Constitution food columnist John Kessler has found their appeal to be much broader.

John Kessler: "… because there is no guilt, you just enjoy it for what it is, however deep-fried it can be."

Kessler set out a few months ago to learn the history of  Tater Tots.  It all started in 1954, with Idaho native Francis “Neef”  Grigg …

John Kessler: "He and his brother Golden Grigg founded the Ore-Ida company.  The company was named because it’s on the border between Oregon and Idaho.  Basically he and his brother were trying to perfect a way to make frozen french fries—that was their core product.  But after they trimmed the french fries there was a lot of left-over."

They’d been feeding that left-over to cattle.  But then Neef Grigg got an idea.  He chopped that potato scrap, seasoned it, pushed it through holes cut in plywood, and fried it.

Grigg then took about 15 pounds of this new concoction to the national potato convention at  
the fancy Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami, Florida.

John Kessler: "He bribed his way to the head cook and arranged to have the Tater Tots cooked, placed in small saucers, and distributed on the breakfast tables for sample treats.  And I’m reading right out of his papers: “These were all gobbled up quicker than a dead cat could wag it’s tail amidst comments of where did these delicious morsels come from and where do we get more.”

Tater Tots would soon become a staple in nearly every school cafeteria, truck stop, and frozen-food section in America.  That’s not cattle feed.

This might have been the end of the story, if not for a little movie called “Napoleon Dynamite.”

(Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack)

Jock: "Napoleon, give me some of your tots."

Napoleon: "No, go find your own."

Jock: "Come on, give me some of your tots."

Napoleon: "No, I’m freakin’ starved.  I didn’t get to eat anything today."

The Idaho-based movie kicked the Tot into the 21st Century and into the mouths of a new generation.  Again, John Kessler.

John Kessler: "I think it was Napoleon Dynamite who separated the tater and the tot so it just became tots.  You know, when you talk to people who are under twenty or so they tend to say Tots rather than Tater Tots."

That youthful sheen gave the Tot what Kessler calls “retro cache.”  And once that happens, he says, “the fine dining crowd can’t be far behind.”

John Kessler: "Someone wrote to tell me about the black truffle Tater Tots  at some restaurant in Boston."

In Washington D.C., well-known chef Michel Richard does a foie gras Tater Tot Ravioli.

John Kessler: " … which just blows my circuits.  I just can’t even imagine what that is."

Closer to home, Leslie Kelly, a Seattle restaurant reviewer, says Tots are also popping up on Northwest menus.

Leslie Kelly: "There is a new restaurant in Ballard called Zayda Buddy’s.  And they have a hot dish casserole which Tater Tots is featured prominently.  You don’t even want to know how many calories is in that dish."

It's important to note, however, that Tater Tots, handled improperly, can be dangerous.

Last Christmas Eve, a flaming pan of Tater Tots set alight a Boise kitchen.  Luckily that kitchen was located in a fire station.  Returning firefighters quickly subdued the blazing Tots.


Online:

Chefs take the humble Tater Tot to the next level by John Kessler

The History of Ore-Ida

Napoleon Dynamite, the official website