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People often ask us, “What the heck is hotdish? Like a hot dish?”
Ehh, not really. People cook it in an oven and serve it out of a hot dish but a “hotdish” more than that.
We’ll go on to explain how Minnesotans and other upper Midwesterns have come to love a dish which involves:
- a starch (e.g. potatoes, noodles, tater tots, wild rice)
- protein (e.g. tuna, salmon, beef, mutton, chicken)
- vegetables (e.g. peas, carrots, beans (often canned, but fresh is okay))
- a sauce binding agent (e.g. cream of mushroom or other canned soup)
“Oh, so it’s a casserole then.”
Well, yes but not really. I’ll explain, but first a little history.
Hotdish started when frugal country folk needed to feed their own families at home and congregations at fellowship gatherings in Minnesota churches. This dish needed to be easy to make and use affordable ingredients to stretch every dollar the family had. It had to be modest enough to get the job done but also dazzle the friends and neighbors coming over for supper.
The meal also had to be durable enough to combat Minnesota’s dark, frigid winters. Hotdish is warm and full of carbohydrate – the perfect comfort food for desolate, bone-chilling winters. Farm families had no reason not to instantly fall in love with hotdish. This infamous dish began as a simplistic type of casserole and evolved into a upper Midwestern dietary staple.
Similar But Different
Please note that casserole/hotpot/shepherds pie type of food has been around since forever. Large families have been around a long time and feeding them has always been a task. Anytime there’s been large families there have been big, communal, frugal, calorie dense food to serve them. Often, chefs cooked and served these foods in the same deep dish, made from metal or Pyrex. This has been going on for quite a while. It’s only recently that the term and experience of hotdish sprang up out of the Great Depression. It’s a regionally dependent dish that has evolved into a cultural trait.
Since it’s earliest recorded history in the 1930’s, hotdish has grown into something much more than a simple casserole spin-off. Between the simplicity of cooking it and it’s popularity with families, cooks kept it in heavy rotation in the homes throughout lean years. And with the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, the term hotdish started to spread far and wide.
Soon you had more hotdish recipes than you could shake a spatula at, all at your fingertips. And with this increased visibility, we started to fully understand how centric this dish was to the upper Midwest, especially Minnesota. Minnesotans are modest (some say the most modest) but they’re also proud of “Minnesotan things”. Even though Wisconsin, North Dakota, and parts of Iowa frequently make hotdish, Minnesota is the first to jump up and claim ownership of it, perhaps because Minnesotans first named it.
From the Prairie Home Companion to Ole and Lena jokes to lutefisk and lefse, hotdish lives in the hearts of Minnesotans. So much so that if you were to ask a Minnesotan (like us) if a hotdish was really another name for a casserole they’d probably say, “Well, kind of but not really.”
First of all, a hotdish is technically a casserole, but hotdish is more than the sum of its parts. A casserole is a bunch of ingredients mixed in a dish and baked at 350 for an hour. Hotdish is more than that. It is a localized cultural phenomena. It’s the big, simple meal you ate at your friend’s parents place on the weekend. It’s the dish at thousands of church gatherings all across Minnesota. To many, it’s the aroma in the car as you transport hotdish and jello salad to family Thanksgiving gatherings.
The phrase is so Minnesotan, so ingrained in our sub conscience and psyche, it becomes part of us. It isn’t a linguistic irregularity – it’s a shared memory and true cultural difference. Hotdish is a regional and cultural offshoot from casserole, similar to how the Minnesotan accent is an offshoot of standard American English.
You almost need to be in Minnesota or have a Minnesotan nearby to qualify a dish as a hotdish. Better yet, all one needs to do is embrace the spirit of Minnesotan life when you throw together the 4 magic hotdish ingredients. That is what makes hotdish, hotdish.
So it’s a casserole then. Right?
Yes, but it’s more than that. A hotdish is a collective experience most Minnesotans and many other upper Midwesterns have had at the dinner table. Hotdish is an atmosphere. It’s a humble, ubiquitous food dish, born from frugal cooks and lean times – named in Minnesota and un-ironically developed by Minnesotans to be culturally different from its peers.
Hear it from other Minnesotans
The hot dish is the meal. The casserole is the glass pan.
Ryan – Mapleton, Minnesota
A hot dish is always a casserole but a casserole is not always a hot dish. At least in my opinion. A casserole is any type of dish that is served out of a casserole pan or a deep serving pan kind of like a cake pan or those ceramic pans. A hot dish is almost always served out of a casserole type pan and as far as I know and always includes a starch, meat, vegetables, and canned soup. Obviously you can make them healthier by taking out the canned soup and using fresh ingredients.
Every hot dish I have made includes potatoes of some kind or rice. I think the starch and meat are probably the biggest part of it so you can’t just throw random vegetables together and call it a hot dish.
An example of something that is a casserole but not a hot dish is green bean casserole. It has no meat and no potato or starch just vegetables and cream of mushroom soup I believe.
Lucas – Dakota, Minnesota
As only an eight-year resident of the great state of Minnesota, I feel I am entirely unqualified to answer this important question. Just as Packer fans and Vikings fans will never come together in celebration, the great hotdish traditions of WI and MN will probably never meld.
Theresa – Stewartville, Minnesota
A hotdish is a food dish oven baked in a pan. It consists of a cream of something base mixed with vegetables, such as green beans or corn, and usually ground beef. Generally it is then topped with tater tots and occasionally with cheese and/or crushed potato chips.
Brian – Stewartville, Minnesota