#5: Hotdish Revolution: A casserole cook off

Posted by Megan on May 3rd, 2011

When I meet new people from out of town they often inquire about what the culture is like here in Minnesota. They wonder how we can survive through snow, ice and butt-crazy cold for months each year. The one word answer: hotdish. Let me explain:

Minnesotans may begrudgingly complain about the subzero temperatures, the impossible driving conditions, the unshoveled sidewalks of their lazy neighbors, but enduring this long dull and dreary season brings us together. It unites us, under God, indivisible for justice and hotdish for all. We’re a big giant family here in the great white north. For several months each year we are home bound as the seeming endless snow builds into an outdoor fortress that denies us the joy and camaraderie of being outdoors with friends. Instead we spend the winter months doing what Midwesterners do best – eating comfort foods, having potlucks and huddling together for warmth.

This cultural trifecta of being trapped indoors, longing for social interactions and love of all things cheese has created a very special subcategory of food – Hotdish! Hotdish is essentially a casserole that contains some type of noodles, ground meat, a can of cream soup and cheese. The possibilities are endless. Most families have their own favorite hotdish recipe – a warm delicious code of arms, if you will. When I was growing up, my family’s standard hotdish was “Grandma Hotdish” (aptly named as my grandmother created the recipe). It contained egg noodles and corned beef. We always begged for hotdish. It was a staple and was so versatile it could be served on Christmas or just as easily on a random Tuesday night. Once, when I was returning home from college for the weekend, my mom asked me what I would like for dinner. “Hotdish of course!” As I ate the first few forkfuls I came to a startling realization. I don’t like Grandma hotdish! Somewhere deep in my heart I always knew this. But, it wasn’t about the food – it never was. It was about having a simple, hearty meal with family. I went through some soul searching. Did I think I was too good for hotdish now that I had moved to the big city? Deep down was I rebelling against the culture that raised me? Nope. I just don’t like corned beef very much. Thankfully I have since found several other varieties of hotdish that I like – which is good, I heard Governor Dayton is deporting Minnesotans who can’t prove their citizenship through a well vetted hotdish recipe.

When I heard about Hotdish Revolution I knew I had to go check it out. I saw the event posted on the CityPages events calendar. It is a fundraiser for the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association. Never mind I don’t live anywhere near this neighborhood.  The concept is simple. It is a hotdish bakeoff followed by a potluck. If you bring a hotdish to compete, you get $5 off the admission to the potluck. Who can say no to an all-hotdish potluck food made by some of Minneapolis’ finest old ladies and hipsters. I decided to prepare a hotdish and make Hotdish Revolution my first ever cooking competition. There were six categories: spicy, tater tot, vegetarian, quintessential (open category), I made it myself (kids 15 and under) & Jello. I took the cowardly approach and choose the category I thought would have the fewest entries; vegetarian. I wanted to choose something somewhat creative, so I searched online for new hotdish recipe that could be adapted to be meatless. I found a spaghetti based dish that fit the bill.

Preparing the hotdish was a whirlwind. I needed to have my hotdish to the event by 4:30. I had spent the morning  running a half marathon and then had a lovely lunch with my family who were in town for the race. I got home at 2 p.m. and still had to get groceries. The sprint was on to get my hotdish, one I had never made before, ready so I could be out the door by 4.

My hotdish stayed warm and cozy in my casserole carrier.

I swaddled my hotdish into its fancy warmer/carrier, (this is the quintessential wedding gift, you know you’ve made it in Minnesota when you have a hotdish carrier) and breezed out the door just in the nick of time. I’d like to point out that I had yet to shower after running 13.1 miles. I didn’t even have time to reapply deodorant. I was sure to make fast friends. Everyone loves the stinky, frazzled girl that came stag.

I arrived at the Grace Center with about ten minutes to spare. I was feeling very confident as I strolled up to the registration table. My hotdish was a good solid recipe. I’ve had lots of hotdishes in my lifetime, and this one definitely held its own especially since I was sure to have little competition in the vegetarian category. I was wrong. It seemed either everyone else also figured the vegetarian category would be the easiest route to claim victory or Northeast Minneapolis is filled with scores of animal rights activists. There were already several vegetarian hotdishes entered in my category. I did a bit of smack talking to a fellow vegetarian hotdish chef, then handed over my pan to complete its destiny. As it turns out, there isn’t a lot of smack talking in cooking competitions, which is a disappointment, as it is one of my favorite pastimes and I am quite skilled it it. “What did you use in that? Cream of CELERY? Not even Babe the Blue Ox would eat that!”

Checking in at the registration table, I heckled the guy next to me’s “mishmashed excuse of a hotdish.” It turned out to be very tasty.

The potluck portion of the evening was scheduled to occur at 5 p.m. Meanwhile we were all invited into the gym to listen to some awesomely entertaining Irish music from the Jolly Groggers. The atmosphere was absolutely perfect. Miss Northeast greeted us as we arrived. You could tell she was taking her duties as ambassador of the neighborhood seriously. She proudly wore her sash and crown. It gave me a brief glimpse at the wonder and easy happiness being a teenager brings.

The Jolly Groggers entertained the crowd with live Irish tunes all evening.

 The room had about 20 tables all facing the band. There were crayons provided to color on the paper table cloths, I knew right then-and-there that this was my kind of gig. I was a little nervous to be going to Hotdish Revolution alone, but I was quickly put at ease. The small town charm was shinning through everyone even though we were smack dab in the middle of the12th biggest city in the nation. I got a glass of wine ( $2!) and sat down to enjoy the music and talk with some other folks at my table. Kids were dancing, friends and neighbors were catching up, raffle tickets were being sold. The positive spirit of the event was intoxicating. I was soaked up the homey atmosphere like a sponge.

At 5 p.m., it was time to eat. We all herded towards to hotdish goodness like cattle. To my distinct delight, we were greeted by an accordion player serenading us as we worked our way through the line. Seriously, how awesome is that!

The first batch of entrants were from the spicy category. I am far to Scandinavian to enjoy spicy food. All the Minnesota transplants must have brought those recipes. I was worried that perhaps the Governor Dayton may have been hiding in a back room somewhere ready to send in the border patrol to capture anyone who brought a spicy hotdish. They cannot possibly be native Minnesotans, we think mild salsa is zesty. My category was next. There were 15 entrants, far more than any other category.

The vegetarian entries stretched on endlessly. Blast you Minneapolis hippies.

The competition was stiff!

 I stacked my plate full of the competition. The good news: mine was distinctive, it was the only spaghetti based entry. The bad news: the competition looked very stiff. I rounded out my plate with a few additional entries from the remaining categories grabbed some jello and a bar for dessert and made my way back my table to dig in.

Heaven on a paper plate.

It only took a few bites to realize I was screwed. My competition was fantastic. While mine tasted like standard hotdish, theirs tasted more developed, more balanced and just better. Don’t get me wrong, they were not fancy. Fancy and hotdish are not compatible. They were tastier, plain and simple.

The crowd at Hotdish Revolution.

It may not have been a winning dish, but at least it got eaten.

Alas, I did not win Hotdish Revolution. But, I had an amazing time. It really felt like the heart and soul of Minnesota were represented so beautifully in the gym full of friends, neighbors and hotdish. Everyone was so friendly, talkative and truly invested into getting to know little-old me. I mentioned to one woman that I lived far away, and that I was so appreciative for how friendly and welcoming that everyone was being.

“We’re all neighbors in Minnesota,” was her reply. That rings true. We’re all in it together, not just here in Minnesota but everywhere. Taking some time to slow down, meet new people and enjoy the simple pleasure of coming together for a common cause was a beautiful way to spend a Saturday evening.

 I’m already working on my recipe for next year. Watch out hotdish chefs, I will definitely be back.

Miss Hotdish assured me that my hotdish was "not gross."

  • © 2011 Megan Steil