October 21, 2013: Tator Tot Casserole

A friend's version of TTC (maybe I should have added the beer)
I just read a Facebook post from a young friend who made tator tot casserole. It brought back memories. Good memories for me, but not so much for my kids.

Growing up, this dish was a staple. I learned how to perfect this casserole at a young age and made it frequently. Beef pressed on the bottom. French style green beans next. Cream of mushroom soup for flavorful liquid (on top of meat fat that bakes in). And then carefully placed tator tots; all in perfect rows. Tween cooking heaven.

At my grandparent's farm this was a frequent dish of mine when I was in charge of meals. My gold standards were spaghetti, broiled hamburgers, hot dogs, and tator tot casserole. I clearly remember the week that my grandma was in the hospital with hip surgery. We all chipped in the fill in for her absence. My job was cooking the meals.

I have always enjoyed cooking. At age twelve, I made an extensive grocery list for my week of planned meals which included my gold standards. For my week as farm chef, I had at least three meals that included hot dogs; chili dogs, cheese filled hot dogs, beans and dogs. My brother, whose job was farm work, was not pleased with the lack of variety in our menu.

"Can you stop with the hot dogs??" he barked at me after our #3 hot dog meal.

This was the one time I heard me grandpa raise his voice. And it was in my defense.

"Sandy has worked very hard to make every meal for us this week. You need to be grateful that you have a meal in front of you and thank her!"

Maybe that's why he was so complimentary of my next meal of tator tot casserole. I deemed this dish a clear winner. But in retrospect, my judgment might have been jaded.

On a cool fall night as a grown-up and cooking mom, I decided to surprise my own kids with this delectable dish from my childhood. Like chicken fingers and hot dogs, I thought every kid loved tator tot casserole. I quickly found this not to be the case.

As I presented my toasted tot dish on the table, the kids gasped.

"What is that? And why are there mushy beans on the bottom?" whined an eight-year-old Zach.

"Yuck!" was the response of five-year-old Ben.

And Grant, the toddler, just yelled "No!" I blamed the influence of his brothers.

Taken aback by their response, I responded like any good mother would. I threatened them. They would all try it or they would go hungry.

Not a single kid would take a nibble. They chose hungry.

After higher degrees of threats, I was finally mad and insulted. I don't remember what incredibly huge punishment I threw at them, but it must have been bad. Finally, they each took a bite. Two of the three were in tears.

Ben proceeded to throw up on his plate. Grant, seeing Ben throw up, reacted by throwing up in his high chair. Zach just cried with an open mouth full of chewed up tator tot casserole; exposed for all to see.

Exasperated, I sent them to their rooms and looked at the disaster left behind. Before me was the uneaten dish of tator tot casserole. I wasn't going to let their shenanigans ruin my meal. Ignoring the mess, I quietly enjoyed my plate of food. In their defense, it wasn't as good as I remembered.

To this day, all three boys will tell their version of the "tator tot casserole" incident. Their story gets better with each time they tell it. Purportedly my head was spinning like a mad woman with words like "YOU WILL EAT IT!" and the presentation of food was similar to a dish of slime.

Where was my grandpa when I needed him to defend me? My kids have no clue how lucky they are. My cooking repertoire has expanded beyond my early years of hot dogs. That would have gotten old for them. Just ask my brother, Mark.

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