For those of you on the east coast, your working day may be concluding and you are considering your evening plans and food. Perhaps a trip to the bar is in order. And perhaps you will have the option to eat some tater tots with your drinks. This is always the correct choice. Tots are simply a superior frozen food item compared to fries. I mean, I love fried and salted potatoes in all their forms, including their sweet potato versions, but tots are probably the finest, thanks to their texture, they work well with many toppings and don’t risk getting soggy like fries so often do. You may be excited to know that tots were also invented in Oregon, where I write this post in the archives waiting for my next set of boxes to be delivered to my table. They go well with a delightfully hoppy double IPA that we also do so well here. Here’s a bit of tot history.
F. Nephi and Golden Grigg were two determined young Mormon entrepreneurs, willing to do anything to get their shot of the American Dream. Born in 1914, Nephi came of age during the Great Depression and was the leader of the two. He was a high school dropout prone to hyperbolic business proverbs. “Bite off more than you can chew,” he wrote, “then chew it.” “You can never go broke by taking a profit,” he relentlessly repeats in his letters to colleagues and his own “History of the Tot,” all found in his personal archive, currently housed at the J. Willard Marriot Library at the University of Utah. (In 1989, an employee of Ore-Ida foods reached out to Nephi Grigg desperate for the story of Tater Tots, noting there was no historical record of how the item came to be. Griggs responded with a five-and-a-half-page personal account that starts with the line, “The Tater Tot is the hero in the history of the saga of Ore-Idea Foods, Inc.” Since his death in 1995, Nephi’s response has been housed in his personal archive; it’s the source for most of the tot’s origin story that exists today.)
During the Great Depression, Nephi and his brother just scraped by in their native Idaho, working as farmers growing and selling potatoes and corn like all of their neighbors. (In the early ‘40s, they also operated a 40-acre dairy farm and restaurant near Vale, Oregon.)
But convinced that the future of produce was in the frozen food aisle, the brothers Grigg mortgaged their farms for a down payment on a flash-freezing plant in Northeastern Oregon. They paid $500,000 dollars for the space (over $4.5 million today). The factory, located on the border between Oregon and Idaho, spawned the name for their new company: Ore-Ida.
By 1951, Ore-Ida had already become the largest distributor of sweet corn in the United States. But the big money was in french fries. Fellow Idahoian J.R. Simplot figured out how to freeze french fries without turning them black in 1946, and was well on his way to billionaire status. The Grigg brothers wanted in. But french fry creation had a technology problem: The machinery could cut the potatoes into fries, but, as Nephi wrote, “we had a problem of separating the fries from the slivers and small pieces of potatoes that occurred [when] slicing the irregular shaped potatoes.”
When an equipment manufacturing company inexplicably showed up at their plant to demonstrate a prune sorter, Nephi and his plant superintendent Slim Burton chatted with them about a redesign. Could the barrel be redesigned so that it would eliminate the unwanted pieces of potatoes from the very wanted french fries? It could.
Let nothing bad be said about Mormons again.
The critical question about tots is what to put on them. Almost anything works, but ketchup is far and away the worst possible option. Even more than fries, it’s better just to eat tots plain, especially if they are well-salted. Ranch is too common served with them and while that is slightly better than ketchup, it ain’t that great. Some sriracha certainly works. Blue cheese does as well, although that works with everything. If one only has ketchup as an option, mixing some hot sauce in at least gives it some character. The thing about tots is that they are good for experimenting.
But for god’s sake, do not use tater tots in your hot dish casseroles. Only Minnesota could take a great invention like tater tots and find a way to make it central to cream of mushroom dishes to be served at Lutheran potlucks. These people should not be allowed to cook.