This post is a salute to my heritage. I am in the midst of taking a food writing class and through explorations of my foodie past, I’ve found such a comfort in the Minnesota Hotdish. I have been working on an article to bring this gem to light. At the same time, I signed up to give a speech for my Toastmasters group. I researched once for two projects and this was the “humorous” speech I gave last week.
(Give this part your best Minnesotan accent. C’mon, give a whirl!) Have you ever heard of Ole and Lena? Vell, they live up north in Minnesota loving life and bumblin’ around.
Vell, don’tcha know, old Ole got sick and vus dyin’ in his bed. And vhile vaitin’ for her old husband to kick duh bucket, Lena started in to cookin’. She vus makin’ lefsa and a nice zucchini hotdish. Well, Old Ole, he loved nuttin’ better than Lena’s hotdish, and ven he smelled it from da deathbed, up he went to da kitchen. Vhen Lena saw dat he vas eatin’ a plate of hotdish and lefsa she took it from him and said, “Ole, vat are ya doin’? Dat hotdish is for duh funeral don’tcha know!”
Minnesotans love their hotdish – the home-style cousin of the casserole – and I would know, generations of my family, including me have called the state, and the dish, home.
Hotdish first got its start when budget-minded farm wives needed to feed their families, as well as congregations in the basements of the first Minnesota churches. It was a simple solution for stretching ingredients, especially pricey cuts of meat, while still being able to dazzle family, friends, and neighbors with something tasty and satisfying.
Also imagine Minnesota winters when the temp could drop to 40 below – a warm hotdish was a comfort food that was filling and foolproof – even in a wood-burning oven. Farm cooks everywhere embraced these hotdishes, and every family had a favorite. And they still do. Including mine.
When I was growing up, my aunt Connie and uncle Keith prepared wild rice hotdish every Sunday for our post-Mass get togethers. My mom often made tuna noodle hotdish with saltine crackers crumbled on top. For deer hunting season, my grandma whipped up her concoction of ground beef, shell pasta, corn, and cream of mushroom soup. Cream of anything soup is an essential base for any Minnesota hotdish.
Like Lena, my family also had a funeral hotdish – we didn’t use zucchini, but we saved our best combination of tomatoes, corn, hamburger, and elbow macaroni to mourn the loss of our elderly relatives and fellow church members.
Hotdish can literally be any combination of ingredients – if you asked 150 Minnesotans for their favorite hotdish recipe, you would get 150 recipes in return.
The word hotdish is so ingrained in me, that it wasn’t until I moved away from Minnesota that it dawned on me – other people might not know the meaning of the word. The first year I was in Seattle, my fellow co-workers and I threw together a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. We were discussing what to bring – pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, dressing – and I uttered the phrase in every Minnesotan’s repertoire, “I’ll just bring a hotdish.” The confused stares I got back threw me off my game. “You know what a hotdish is, right?” My brave co-worker Evelyn, said, “oh yah, oh yah, it’s a plate and it gets hot, helps keep the food warm.” “Not exactly, it’s essentially a casserole.” It’s a funny comparison to me because the word “casserole” doesn’t hold the same feeling and tradition as the word “hotdish.”
I found this great quote from a fellow Minnesotan – She sums it up perfectly.
“Hotdishes are such a part of our history. They are the epitome of comfort foods and bring such satisfying memories to all Minnesotans.” ~Linda M. Kopp, Staples, MN
From Ole and Lena with their Scandinavian accents to my grandma with her “oh you’se guys” to my mom and to me – the basics of the Minnesota hotdish remain the same whether or not the ingredients change.