Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fun!, Food!, Facts!, Tater Tots, the Tubular Spuds!

Tater tots are one of the world’s most perfect foods. They are frozen and come in big, pillow-sized bags at just about any food market, for relatively little money. They are delicious and satisfying; that is undeniable. Cylindrical, crunchy, and golden brown on the outside, with that steaming yummy grated spuddy center, they aren’t served nearly as often as they should be, either in restaurants, or by friends that invite me over to dine. After being sprinkled with salt, pepper, and a little garlic powder, they are the perfect complement to some French’s Yellow Mustard, garlicky aioli, chipotle ketchup, oniony tartar sauce, or spicy queso. And, as Napoleon Dynamite so ably demonstrates, they are durable enough to be secreted away in a pants pocket for later consumption when the urge strikes.

Its roots are firmly connected to the Jewish latke, the Irish boxty, the Belarus draniki, or the Polish placki, and in some areas of the Northeast they are called “juliennes” or “potato puffs.” In Australia, they are called “potato gems” or “potato pom-poms” (also their Kiwi name). In Britain they were called “oven crunchies”. In Canada, proprietary brands of tater tots manufactured there are “Tasti Taters” and “Spud Puppies” (the best product name of all time!). But on the border of Oregon and Idaho where they originated, the name Tater Tot was selected. Tater is slang for potato (origin: 1750–60, America; by the phonetic process of aphresis (the loss of one or more sounds from the beginning of a word, especially the loss of an unstressed vowel): tato, with a substitution of -er for the final -o, making it tater). “Tots” may have developed from the small size of the product, or because kids are so crazy about them (assuming they were tested on children). In some regions, the word “Tater” is informally dropped, and the product is simply called “Tots”. This slang was credited to the popularity of the film Napoleon Dynamite, where the term “Tots” is commonly used, but the use of the shortened term “Tots” for Tater Tots long predated the release of the film.
Tater Tots were first created in 1953 when Ore-Ida (so named because it sits on the border between Oregon and Idaho) founders/brothers F. Nephi “Neef” and Golden Grigg were trying to figure out what to do with surplus slivers of cut-up potatoes after French fries had been processed in their plant. These leftover slivers were being gathered and used as cattle feed locally, but Neef felt like there had to be a better use for them. They came up with the idea of chopping and shredding the leftover slivers, adding some flour and seasonings to them, and then extruding them through holes to form long cylinders that could be cut into small lengths and then fried. The first extrusion prototype was made from plywood. The first test marketing of the product consisted of an Ore-Ida executive traveling across the country, playing the ukulele to attract a crowd (remember, this was in the early 50’s), and then passing out samples to the music lovers.

Tater Tot’s coming-out party was held at the then recently opened Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, at the National Potato Convention in 1954. The Fountainbleu was a fitting venue, since it was a stylish post-modern structure, symbolic of America’s post-War II fascination with new forms, modern convenience, and luxury; a site that perfectly matched the modern, now, a-go-go tater tot. At one breakfast Neef had smuggled in a satchel of 15 pounds of Tater Tots and then bribed the head chef to prepare them. Once they were cooked, Neef had them placed on small saucers, and distributed on all of the breakfast tables for sample treats. “They were gobbled up," Grigg wrote, "faster than a dead cat could wag its tail.” Maybe this is an Oregon or Idaho folk saying, and even though it makes no sense at all (since a dead cat cannot “wag” or twitch its tail), we think we get the meaning; reports had the breakfast diners loving them, and wanting to know where they could get more.
They first became available in grocery stores later in 1954. Ironically, the original price point was too low; people wouldn’t buy them because there wasn’t any perceived value. Once OreIda raised the price, they suddenly had merit, and people started buying them. Today, Americans consume over 70 million pounds, or about 3.6 billion individual Tots, per year. What began as a solution to make use of leftover scraps has become an American food icon. That status was reinforced by the product placement of Tater Tots in Napoleon Dynamite.
In the high school lunchroom:
Napoleon: Are you going to eat your tots?
Pedro: No.
Napoleon: Can I have ‘em? (At which point Napoleon takes the pile and puts them in the side cargo pocket of his pants.) Later that day, in class, while reading, Napoleon takes a Tot out of his pocket and bites it in half….
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.

That mention in the film’s dialog, and the fact that it was shot in Idaho, caused the Idaho Legislature to pass a resolution in 2005 commending the “Napoleon Dynamite” filmmakers, reading, in part: “…tater tots (sic) feature prominently in this film thus promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” We assume that they meant potatoes, but perhaps Tater Tots are Idaho’s most famous export. They are famous enough to earn their own National Tater Tots Day, every February 2nd.

OreIda was eventually purchased by H. J.Heinz, and now the Tater Tots line has expanded, with Onion Tater Tots, ABC Tater Tots (alphabet-shaped Tots!), Crispy Crowns (crispier Tots), and Mini Tater Tots. You can make your own Tots at home and season them with anything you like.

Basic Tots makes about 50 tots
Russets are a high starch spud, and the starch is what holds the tots together when they are cooking.
4 large Russet baking potatoes, peeled
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dehydrated granulated onion
½ teaspoon black pepper
Cornstarch or potato starch (if necessary)
Vegetable or rice bran oil for frying

Using a food processor, shred the potatoes. Take the shredded potato and pulse it in the food processor bowl to cut the shreds into small pieces. Steam the potato shred pieces for only about 3 minutes, just enough to get them to express their starch. Spread them out on a sheet pan and sprinkle them with the salt, onion, and pepper and mix well. At this point you should be able to take a clump of the mixture and squeeze it, and it should retain the shape. If it tries to fall apart, you can sprinkle some cornstarch or potato starch over the mixture and mix it in well.
Lay down a sheet of plastic film about 12 to 14 inches long. Spoon the potato mixture in a line about ¾-inch wide and ¾-inch tall, running almost the length of the piece of film. Tightly roll up the film from the side, like you might roll a cigarette, forming a tight log, twisting the ends in opposite directions to seal. Repeat with the remainder of the potato mixture. Put the logs in the freezer for about 30 minutes or so to firm-up.

Preheat oil for frying to about 355°. Take a log, remove the plastic film, and slice it into sections about 1 to 1¼ -inch long, forming the tots. Fry the tots in batches until golden brown; if they try to stick on the bottom, let them brown and gently remove with a spatula about ¾ the way through the cooking process. Remove and drain on paper towels. At this point they can be frozen. They can be cooked to finish in a hot oven (~400°) on a sheet pan or cookie sheet until crispy and heated through, or they can be deep fried in oil (365°) until crispy and heated through.

They are good served with mustard, ketchup, aioli, tartar sauce, green onion-sour cream dip, chile con queso, or just about anything else you can dream up.
You can add dried powdered chiles (jalapeƱo, ancho, chipotle, etc) or cayenne to spice them up a little, you can use some granulated garlic in place of the onions, or add minced bacon bits or dried scallions. If you hand-form the tots, you can place a chilled ½ teaspoon-sized portion of cheese (goat, pepper jack, mozzarella, cheddar, blue, manchego, etc.) in the middle of a tot and mold the potato mixture around the outside, cooking them until the cheese inside is melted.