I’ve noticed more and more over the past year or two that Tater Tots, the little cylinder potato-things most of us grew up eating with school lunches and out of freezer bags at home, are making their way onto restaurant menus.
The Monkey Wrench has featured the Tot with dishes like the Kentucky Tot Brown and Chili Cheese Tots. Diamond Pub and Billiards has Tots. Drake’s and Zanzabar have Tots. Even Hooters have Tots. (That sounds a little naughty when you say it out loud.)
Hell, Foursquare recently posted a list titled “The Best 9 Places for Tater Tots in Louisville.” So what the Tot is going on here, anyway? I always thought of the Tot as being, while a fairly tasty potato morsel, little more than a bite-sized hash brown. But apparently the little suckers have taken on a life of their own.
So, I decided to do a little Tot research. What I found is that versions of Ore Ida’s trademarked product, the Tater Tot, are popular in other countries as well. In England, they are usually called “potato crunchies,” although I also found a reference to them as “oven crunches.” In Australia, they are most commonly known as “potato gems,” “potato royals” or “potato pom poms.” I even found a German reference to Tots as “kroketten,” which probably stems from the word “croquette.” And if you think about it, a Tater Tot is just a potato croquette.
Call them what you will, the little guys have a lot of charm. People want them, and I don’t just mean kids – most adults I know still have that inner kid lurking inside, and that inner kid still wants his or her Tater Tots.
Case in point, I decided to hit Spring Street Bar & Grill recently with a couple of friends; Spring Street is my place of choice to get Tater Tots, which I tend to eat plain with just a little hot sauce rather than smothering them in cheese or other toppings (they get soggy, and that’s no good). I figured I’d do some follow-up research by eating Tots. My friend Jeremy ordered a burger with fries, after which I ordered a chicken fingers basket with Tater Tots instead of fries.
Jeremy immediately piped up to our server, “You have Tater Tots? Well, then skip the fries. I want Tater Tots, too.”
See? They’re magical somehow. And they’re nothing more than grated pieces of potato clumped together and fried until they turn brown and crispy on the outside. This is no revelation, you know? But according to the 2011 book, “Fast Food and Junk Food: An Encyclopedia of What We Love to Eat,” Americans consume roughly 70 million pounds of Tater Tots every year. (That’s a lot of Tots. “Napoleon Dynamite” probably had something to do with that.)
Ore Ida apparently made them famous as little cylinders, but there are tons of recipes available to make them at home in whatever shape you want. And if you want to adult them up a little, just add some green onions, peppers, cayenne, oregano, dill — you get the idea.
And making them at home might be more desirable than getting that 10-pound bag at Costco anyway. Store-bought Tater Tots were designed in 1954 to make use of whatever is left over from potatoes that have been used for other products. That practice no doubt continues today, and one description I found conjured the image of people on an assembly line with paring knifes cutting the barely edible pieces out of rotten potatoes and collecting the bits for grating into Tots. (You can’t believe everything you read on the InterWeb, but it’s something to consider.)
Anyway, during my informal tasting experiment at Spring Street Bar, I dipped a few of my tasty Tots into wing sauce, dipped a few into horseradish sauce and simply ate a few plain. What I experienced was a consistent, crunchy morsel that can either be popped and chewed in one bite or split into two bites. Either way, I got the same basic potato flavor from each one, with the slightly chunky and mostly soft center offsetting a persistent crunch from the golden brown bark.
Honestly, I think I could eat 100 of the things. It kind of inspires me to buy a new cheese grater, a few Idaho potatoes, and then going to work to see what kind of grown-up Tot concoctions I can make. I wonder if anyone has ever put meat into a Tater Tot? That may happen. Brisket Tots, anyone?