The Hot Dish – A Minnesota Threeway

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We think we’re so unique with our Cincinnati Threeway.   And we are, in a sense.   We’re the only city in the country that puts ‘chili’ on top of spaghetti and covers it with a mountain of shredded cheddar cheese. But, if you deconstruct the threeway into its basic components, meat in a sauce, a starch, and dairy, we’re not really all that unique.     New Mexico has a threeway in its Frito Pie (see my blog on 5/26/2105).   Montreal has its Poutine.  And then Rochester, New York, has its Garbage Plate, that I’ll be discussing shortly.   But the Land of the Lutherans, Minnesota, has a long tradition of their version of the threeway.   Invented by budget conscious farmwives, it’s been known since the early 1930s (only shortly after the introduction of our threeway).    This Church-lady classic is called the Hot Dish.

While the Cincinnati Threeway had sordid beginnings in a parlor next to a Burlesque theatre, the Minnesota Hot Casserole has much more respectable origins, in church basements.    It’s the difference between a hoochie-coo and a hymnal.   The first written record of the Hot Dish appears in 1930 in the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook, from Mankato, Minnesota.   That recipe called for two pounds of hamburger, i.e. ground beef, Creamette brand elbow macaroni and canned peas.

Since then many versions of the hot dish have popped up, especially since 1933 when Campbell’s debuted its condensed creamed soups, with flavors like cream of mushroom.   Known in the Midwest as “The Lutheran Binder,” cream of mushroom soup became the go-to sauce for the Hot Dish or Minnesota Threeway.     Serve it in a large casserole dish, and it can feed the faithful in big numbers.

The formula for the Hot Dish is pretty standard.   Start with a protein like ground beef, shredded chicken or canned tuna.   Then you add a canned vegetable like canned corn or green beans.   Add a starch like wild rice, macaroni, or mashed potatoes.   Then add a binding sauce like cream of anything soup, or cheddar cheese soup, and then top with something crunchy like French fried onion rings, chow mein noodles, crushed potato chips (I’d choose Husman’s Barbecue Chips) or Tater Tots.

The year 1953 holds significance to the evolution of the Hot Dish.   It was this year that one of the most popular toppers was invented by brothers Nephi and Golden Grigg, the owners of Ore-Ida potatoes. They had a surplus of scraps from frozen French fries (which U.S. GI’s were introduced to in Belgium during WWI), and they invented a new product.   The inventive brothers chopped up the slivers, added spices, flour, then extruded the mash, cut off in bite-sized chunks and deep fried.

At first the inexpensive product did not catch on, as people saw no value.   But when the price was raised, people began buying it, and now we Americans consume 70 million pounds of them a year.     And, they found a home in school lunch counters and Lutheran Church basements.   Originally, without a name, Ore-Ida held a contest and Clora Lay Orton, then a young housewife, came up with the name.

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While most go to a chili parlor to have their Cincinnati Threeway, in Minnesota, there’s always someone’s Grandma who can make the Hot Dish best.       That made it difficult to take the Hot Dish out of the basement and into the restaurant. But there’s a New York chef, Gavin Kaysen, who returned home to elevate the Hot Dish at his Minneapolis restaurant Spoon and Stable.   But in order to pass muster, he had to invite the Ladies Aid from the Mount Olivet Lutheran Church to approve his items.    Chef Kaysen integrates international flavors and upgraded ingredients into his Hot Dishes. One calls for harissa spice, while another replaces cream of mushroom soup with a wild mushroom gravy with fresh rosemary and thyme.   Now the Lutheran Ladies call Chef Kaysen a ‘hot dish.’

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