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Why Do Minnesotans Call Casserole 'Hotdish'?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Rep. Tom Emmer took home first prize at the eighth-annual Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hotdish Competition on Wednesday.

He won with a traditional recipe of tater tots, cream of mushroom soup, sausage and bacon topped with General Mills cereal.

This would be called a casserole competition anywhere else – but not Minnesota. Why is this so? Good Question.

"To try to put a boundary around hotdish is a losing battle," said Tracey Deustch, a professor of food history at the University of Minnesota.

She pointed out that virtually all hotdishes are casseroles, but probably not all casseroles are hotdishes.

Tator Tot Hotdish
(credit: CBS)

Casseroles became popular in the United States during the 1920. They were made possible by the advent of the self-regulating oven, according to Megan Elias, a professor of gastronomy at Boston University. This was also around the time canned goods were becoming more accessible.

"It made sense for a lot of families at that moment," Elias said.

Casseroles could be used to stretch leftover meat, which was especially important during the Great Depression and World War II.

Tater tots, though, were not a staple of casseroles -- or hotdish -- until much later. Ore-Ida came up with the tater tot in the 1950s as a way to sell potato scraps. According to Deutsch, the product did not sell well at first, so Ore-Ida decided to market it as toppings for casserole.

Hotdish is common terminology in western Wisconsin and Minnesota, while casserole is the preferred name everywhere else in the country.

The story behind that is still a mystery, at least according to Deutsch, Elias and Ann Burckhardt, author of Hot Dish Heaven.

What is known, though, is that the term "hotdish" first appeared in a 1930 Mankato cookbook, published by Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid.

"What's clearer is that the dish has become a symbol of Minnesotan identity," Deustch said. "That is exactly why there are so many debates over what a hotdish can be."

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