There are, by my count, two episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in which Guy Fieri watches another man prepare tater tots, narrates the process, and then makes some noises while eating one. “I think everyone in their culinary career, at one time or another, has tried to make the bomb tot,” he explains to Triple-D fans. “It’s hard to get them as good as they manufacture them.”
And if you look at the tots whipped up on the show—or any other tot made from scratch by a bar or restaurant looking to put a house-made spin on on an extremely delicious frozen-food product—you’ll notice a commonality: They look like sad, mushy mounds, with little exterior crunch. Because as much as tots have seen something of a renaissance in our post-recession, hipster-ish revival of mass-marketed foods (I’m looking at you, PBR and Doritos), it’s mostly pointless to try to make them at home. OG tots aren’t just a reliable font of school-lunch nostalgia; they are a reliably excellent food product that doesn’t need a DIY bar-food movement to resuscitate them. The truth is, they were already perfect at their midcentury inception.
Tater tots started, as so many foodstuffs do, as a waste product—a mish-mash of those potato corners and bits that came through the sorter in the fry-making process but didn’t really look like regulation french fries. At first Ore-Ida was running them through a centrifuge, then selling them as cattle feed that promised to fatten up local Oregon cows. Then, in 1953, Ore-Ida founder Nephi Grigg and his colleagues began chopping and mashing them, mixing them with seasoned flour, pushing them through a piece of plywood with ¾-inch holes drilled into it. (That size hasn’t changed.) The name came from a prompt for employees to go home and “think of something that rhymed with ‘small,’” according to Gary Grigg, Nephi’s nephew. Demand quickly grew, and soon the company was chopping up whole potatoes to turn into tots.
The big break came in 1954, at a food show in Miami Beach. A team from Ore-Ida froze their tots, packed them up in dry ice, and flew them to Miami, where they proceeded to bribe the kitchen staff with $100 to fry and serve the tots.
To this day, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has improved on a basket of fresh-fried Tater Tots. Sure, they’re an essential component to many a midwestern Hot Dish, but there they’re just offering up their softness and crunch as a sacrifice to the casserole gods. Perhaps the only widely accepted iteration are totchos, tots’ molten cheese-slathered answer to cheese fries that have seen a mounting popularity in recent years. “[Tots] are very ideal for dipping, topping, coating,” says chef Wylie Dufresne, “in the spirit of Waffle House [hash browns]—smothered, covered, whatever. They play to the pleasure principle.”
Tots have an uncanny knack for inserting themselves into dishes that people already know and love—cheese fries and nachos; fried potatoes dipped in sauce; potatoes layered into a cheese-heavy casserole. Dale Talde, who serves from-frozen tots at Brooklyn’s Pork Slope, has experimented with defrosting them, pressing them into a waffle iron, and using waffled tots as a salty, crispy “bun” for a breakfast burger. Unlike other low-brow products that have won our favor in the past decade (Twinkies, PBR), tots taste objectively excellent, and they’re relatively adaptable. But many tot fans agree that there’s little use in trying to make your own.
“It’s like olive oil,” explains Dufresne. “I can make olive oil, but people already make it as good as it can be made. And I don’t want to mess with food memories; food memories are powerful, and when you disrupt that, you run into trouble. But if you can build upon it and add to the memory—a smoked tater tot, a pickled tater tot, a flavored tater tot—you can go somewhere that I find interesting.”
J. Kenji López-Alt, who once reverse-engineered the classic tot recipe, admitted to the foolishness of DIY-ing Ore-Ida’s perfection when he wrote, “Why on earth would anybody bother peeling, frying, chopping, shaping and re-frying their own Tots when you can easily buy a package of frozen ones that are just as good?” (He also, for the record, thinks totchos are “pretty stupid,” since the tots fall apart under so many toppings.)
Photo: Flickr/Amy Ross
Talde is of the same mind. “I think that making your own is bullshit,” he told me recently. “It’s all about texture,” and that texture—the thick layer of crunch you get on the outside of a freezer tot—is tough to replicate (hence all the mush being served at nouveau-hip gastropubs). The key to that Ore-Ida texture is in the freezing. “Just like with regular french fries,” López-Alt explains, “ice crystals form inside [tots] that rupture cells, and that in turn makes it easier for moisture to escape afterwards, so they come out crisper and dryer.” Fresh isn’t best here. And perhaps that’s the most American food of all: that which is at its peak when found in an average grocery store’s freezer section, not crafted in the back of a newfangled bar.
Of course, there are a lot of good mass-market bar foods that we will love forever. There’s the mozzarella stick and the fried pickle. But so many of these staples—particularly those in the “this could do well at TGI Fridays” category—are good because they’re a little disgusting. Consider the jalapeño popper: Its allure lies in its ability to take us to the brink of our tolerance for shame, for calorie bombs, for fried and cheese-stuffed foods that will resign us to a couch after we consume a trough of them. But tots are a cleaner experience: they’re simple and almost impossible to fuck up. They are salty and crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. They’re elemental. And—unlike, say, PBR, the darling of many a “cool, chill” chef—liking them isn’t a statement about one’s appreciation for low-brow products or an eschewing of snobbiness. Liking them just means you’re a person with taste buds.
There are few other frozen foods so unrivaled by their DIY counterparts. López-Alt threw Totino’s pizza rolls into the ring as another product that’s barely worth replicating. But tots have a nostalgia factor that few other foods can match. You can find very good frozen french fries, sure. You may have eaten a lot of french fries growing up, but they were likely all different. (And let’s remember that there are a lot of bad french fries out there.) Tots, on the other hand, are a singular memory. “They taste like your childhood,” says Talde. “They taste like when times were a lot easier, when the only stress you had was where you were going to sit in the lunch room.” And if you eat an Ore-ida tot today, you’re eating the same one you ate in whatever year you were carrying around a Trapper Keeper, whether it’s in an ironically dive-y establishment or an earnestly dive-y one.
Tots, it seems, will outlive us all; when the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren find themselves in the last remaining patch of America’s dry land (Topeka, KS), they will find themselves eating tots, still shocked at their goodness. Let’s hope Heinz ketchup survives that long, too.