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Chefs take the humble Tater Tot to the next level
By JOHN KESSLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/17/08
The Tater Tot held its debutante ball, fittingly, at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. The swooping post-modern structure had itself just debuted in 1954, signaling the country's interest in new forms, new conveniences, new luxuries — all financed with infusions of postwar cash.
The coming-out event wasn't actually a dance in honor of a frozen food, but rather a breakfast at the National Potato Convention being held at the hotel. One attendee — F. Nephi "Neef" Grigg of Ore-Ida Foods in Idaho — had smuggled in a satchel of what would be his greatest invention.
No matter how you spell it, Tater Tots are popular.
Tater Tots are everywhere these days – on a menu near you, in recipes – and can come stuffed with cheese or even (chef's honor) foie gras.
Tater Tot recipes: How to make your own and customize theirs.
• Tater Tot photo gallery
John Kessler writes food features and a column about food and more for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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As Grigg recalls in his papers, he "bribed ... the head cook ... and arranged to have the Tater Tots cooked, placed in small saucers and distributed on the breakfast tables for sample treats."
"They were gobbled up," Grigg wrote, "faster than a dead cat could wag its tail."
Half a century later, the gobbling of Tater Tots continues unabated — to the tune of more than 3.6 billion annually. Grigg's solution for using up scrap generated from the processing of frozen french fries has become an iconic American food — snack, side dish, object of adoration. Each successive generation deepens our appreciation.
For baby boomers, the presence of Tater Tots signaled a happy equation in the school cafeteria: Tater Tots + Ketchup = Bliss. For Generation X, they became a ubiquitous comfort food — the stuff of casseroles, fish-stick Fridays and midnight munchies.
Now, a younger generation promotes Tater Tots as hipster bar food. The ultra-chill Clocked in Athens serves its tots as cocktail bites with blue cheese dip. The Vortex in Midtown hosts a monthly "Boozer Doodle and Tater Tot Extravaganza," in which would-be artists sketch burlesque dancers, drink to excess and help themselves to the endless single-item buffet. (As often as not, they sketch fetishized images of the tots; some can be viewed on www.flickr.com).
This generation also has definitively dropped the "tater." Following the example set by Napoleon Dynamite, the movies' patron saint of awkward youth, these fried snacks have become "tots" tout court in common parlance.
Fill it with foie gras
Once a popular food earns its retro cachet these days, the fine dining crowd can't be far behind. Don't believe it? Michel Richard — the great chef at Citronelle in Washington — has five little words to shake your soul:
"Tater Tot foie gras ravioli!" the chef exclaims by telephone. "I make the Tater Tot mixture, fill it with foie gras and then sauté it until it crisps. They're wonderful."
Fancy stuff aside, the French-born chef professes a fondness for the freezer-bag variety of this ultimate American bite in all its plainspoken goodness.
"I love Tater Tots like you get in a burger joint," enthuses Richard. "They're crunchy and crispy on the outside, and creamy and moist inside. Mmmmm."
So enamored was Richard of the little potato snacks that developing a technique to duplicate (if not improve) them has become a long and evolving professional project. The very first recipe in his James Beard Award-winning cookbook "Happy in the Kitchen" (Artisan, $45) — an homage called Spuddies — binds potato cubes with gelatin, which melts when fried. Creamy and crisp, but not exactly tot for tat.
So Richard abandoned that technique for a better one that, in fact, echoes the industrial process perfected by Grigg a half-century earlier. He barely steams Yellow Finn potato cubes, then packs them into a mold to cool, letting the expressed potato starch do the binding. He cuts the chilled mixture into bites and fries them twice — once at a moderate temperature to cook them through and then again at a high temperature to crisp the outsides. Creamier, crisper.
On menus high and low
Closer to home, some Atlanta chefs also make their own potato bites, though they stop short of dropping in handfuls of black Périgord truffle as Richard is wont to do. Gary Donlick at Pano's & Paul's prepares nutmeg-scented potato bites that he serves with wild mushrooms and strip steak. Ron Eyester of Food 101 in Morningside has fashioned crab-filled tots as an appetizer.
Yet the cultish surge in appreciation lies not in the whims of a few creative chefs but in the fact that so many drinking holes and joints have discovered that a hot, salty, greasy basket of tater goodness is the way to diners' hearts.
"There's something about that chemical tang of vegetable oil sliding down your throat that's so addictive," says a thoughtful Hillary Brown, the 30-year-old restaurant critic for Athens' Flagpole newspaper.
The Vortex tries to go the deep-fat fryer one better and serves a messy heap of chili-cheese tots, though this bodacious heap — neither crunchy nor creamy — offers little beyond ballast.
With recipes, texture must be the first consideration. Tater Tots can never be a food of the moment like chili-cheese fries, nachos or still-popping Rice Krispies enjoying their first contact with milk.
No, as millions of Midwesterners can attest, Tater Tots show a gentler side to their personality when smothered and baked. Tater Tot hot dish appeals for its pillowy, potato-y insides as much as its crisp surface.
Consider the "Tomminator" — an amalgam of tots and Brunswick stew sheathed in a thick cloak of melted cheese that has become the signature dish at Fox Bros. BBQ in Inman Park. It is fine when fresh from the kitchen, but distressingly delicious after five minutes when the tots have surrendered all integrity.
Sheila Devaney of Chapel Hill, N.C., says the vegetarian Tater Tot casserole she learned to make while living in Georgia "is always the first thing gone when you bring it to a potluck at work. But if there's any left, it's even better the next day for breakfast."
Not content with casseroles, a growing subculture of home cooks has begun shredding potatoes and hand-forming their own tots — debating Richard's recipe along with a number of others floating on cooking Web sites.
Devaney considers such efforts ridiculous, if not anathema to the essential appeal of Tater Tots: their ubiquity.
"Why would you ever make your own?" she gasps in disbelief. "Just go to our friends at Ore-Ida. They can hook you up!"
Editor's Note: References to Tater Tots and tots are used with permission from the H.J. Heinz Co.
• Before F. Nephi Grigg invented the Tater Tot, Ore-Ida used its potato scraps as cattle feed.
• The first test marketing consisted of an Ore-Ida executive traveling the country to hand out samples and play the ukulele while people ate.
• The alliterative name was coined with the help of a thesaurus and, yes, it's a registered trademark. There are many fried potato snacks but — hail! — only one Tater Tots.
• The Idaho Legislature passed a resolution in 2005 commending the "Napoleon Dynamite" filmmakers that reads, in part: "tater tots (sic) feature prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho's most famous export."
• Ore-Ida, a subsidiary of H.J. Heinz, produces several varieties, including onion Tater Tots and mini-Tater Tots.
— John Kessler