Food writer Nicola Miller explores the delicious combining of nationally available American food with local traditions
Whenever a British television show travels to the USA in order to explore its food culture, very rarely will they step away from the familiar and comfortable. We get Key lime pie from Florida, Texan chili, and gumbo from Louisiana, but rarely do they visit those communities of people whose food is barely known outside of the region they live in. (Although, recently I was pleased to see The Hairy Bikers spend some time in Oklahoma with the Cherokee Nation.)
The United States is a country so vast it is so easy to barrel past these places in favour of more well-known cities and experiences, but you’d be missing out on one of the most fascinating aspects of American cultural history. Travel to watery St Bernard’s Parish in south-eastern Louisiana and you will meet descendants of Canary Islanders, known as Isleños, who settled in what was then Spanish Louisiana between 1770-1783 and to this day cook the same caldos and ropa viejas that their ancestors ate. In arid Nevada you’ll encounter the descendants of Basque immigrants who came to the USA during the Gold Rush then found a better life could be had by farming sheep and selling the meat to miners. The USA is a beef and pork-loving country and finding lamb on a menu can be hard. Not so in Nevada’s Winnemucca where Basque restaurants proliferate, and the scent of lamb shanks cooked with herbs and noodles perfumes the air. Then there’s Wisconsin, home to the largest settlement of Flemish and Walloon-speaking Belgians in North America. How many of us knew this? Belgian pies with their sweet yeast pastry crust and filling of rice, cream cheese, and cooked fruit are baked year-round with local bakers going into overdrive during Kermis (the harvest) but you will struggle to find these pies on sale anywhere else in the USA.
What I find even more intriguing is the ingenious way modern American cuisine has married nationally available foodstuffs with local traditions and culinary coping strategies. You can see this in the way Hawaiians use Spam™, combining it with seaweed and rice to produce Spam musubi which is itself a useful, plated representation of how Hawaii and its people have been affected by war, privation, and migration. Go to Minnesota or North Dakota and you’ll come across their famous ‘hot dish’, topped with pudgy, barrel-shaped Tater Tots™, the darling of local potlucks. Hot dish and Spam musubi are marriages of both the material and the symbolic and there are thousands more examples of this to be found all over the USA.
My first encounter with this Minnesotan specialty came via a book called Hot Dish Heaven by Ann L. Burckhardt. I was instantly fascinated. This is a part of the USA where the winters can be intensely cold, and it is populated by a lot of people whose ancestors migrated from northern European countries. Their food is hearty and staying. Of course, Minnesota and North Dakota are not the only parts of the USA which freeze in winter, but you are highly unlikely to come across the term ‘hot dish’ being used to describe a baked casserole anywhere else although Tater Tots are, in themselves, a veritable pillar of the American freezer aisle. And to tell the story of their invention is to define the qualities I admire most in Americans: a sense of fun, and plenty of ingenuity and resourcefulness.
Back in the early 1950s, Nephi and Golden Griggs, two brothers who worked on the family farm in eastern Oregon growing corn and potatoes wanted in on the fast-growing American frozen foods industry and decided to buy a flash-freezing plant to make French fries. (It was only recently that technology had discovered a way of preventing fries from turning black when they were frozen.) Their fries did exceedingly well but the slicing process left them with lots of potato scraps which they initially fed to cattle and pigs until they both realised that using the scraps to make a new potato product would be far more profitable. So, after developing a machine to separate the scraps from the fries more efficiently, Tater Tots were born and made their debut at the 1954 National Potato Convention in Miami’s rather glamorous Fontainebleau Hotel and although they did not sell very well initially because they were perceived as ‘cheap food’, once the price increased, so did sales.
A few years ago, Tater Tots reached that evolutionary stage whereby a blue-collar foodstuff is taken apart by chefs and food personalities, to be reconstructed in ways I shall call ‘Ironic Haute’. At its height, you could feast on Tater Tots filled with nuggets of lobster or crab or Daniel Boulud’s version served with pork and caramelized onion, and go to the now-closed HauteDish in Minnesota where cooked potatoes were loaded up with butter, cream, and Mornay sauce then rolled in potato flakes before being fried. You can still find Tater Tots stuffed with brisket turned into breakfast bur-tot-o’s, made with pork belly and tossed with Brussels sprouts or wrapped in bacon, served with octopus, or made ‘dirty’ (God, I hate that word when it is applied to food) with melting hillocks of cheese and runnels of sriracha. These Tater Tots are often prefixed with ‘crispy’ which amuses me because what else are they supposed to be? The loaded and the dirty vie with the 7-Eleven’s customised Tater Tot bar and miles and miles of American school lunch trays piled high with these potato products (and sadly, the latter has become an unfortunate symbol for everything that is wrong with American school food). It’s a shame to see a food that had to have its price raised in order to make it seem aspirational, and a food that was part of the American post-war drive to ease the domestic drudgery of scratch cooking, vilified as a symbol of a broken food system.
I’ve had a go at making my own version and I have paired them with a recipe for a sauce which isn’t as well known outside of northern Alabama, especially compared to the big beasts of barbecue sauces - the sweeter Kansas City-Style Sauce, Memphis’s tangier, tomatoey version, Eastern North Carolina Vinegar Sauce and South Carolina mustard. I first ate Alabama White Sauce when we stopped in the northern part of the state to stretch our legs during a drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Columbus in Mississippi. This is the syncretic southern barbecue belt, where one of the oldest cooking techniques known to humans - with a name that some scholars believe has its roots in the Taino Indian word ‘babracot’ - is king, although scholars like Michael Twitty argue that “barbecue is as African as it is Native American and European".
Alabama White Sauce was created and popularised by Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, Alabama, where it serves as both mopping sauce and accompaniment to their even more famous smoked chicken. It has become so popular that it is bottled and sent out to the Alabaman ‘diaspora’ worldwide. I’m not going to give you a recipe for smoked chicken but instead, I suggest you buy a copy of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book written by Chris Lilly who is their world-champion Pitmaster. BBG’s recipe for Alabama White Sauce can be found in there, too. My recipe includes a dash of Worcestershire sauce and I’ve fiddled with the proportions of some of the other ingredients but otherwise, it barely differs from their mayonnaise-based version which is specifically designed to ensure the chickens retain their succulence during the cooking process. You could roast a chicken to go with this, too.
As Chris says, the sauce was originally a closely guarded secret but as generations of cooks passed through their kitchen, the recipe went with them. He is extraordinarily un-precious about this; so many other businesses would throw a hissy fit but instead, Chris prefers to see it as a compliment. “I look at it as a badge of honour to see references of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q and Alabama White Sauce all over the world. It’s mind-blowing to know that this entire craze was started in Decatur, Alabama, back in 1925,” he told me. The restaurant gets through 20-25 gallons of the stuff per day of this uniquely versatile sauce which Chris tells me is used for basting, marinating, as a table condiment, and makes a great base for potato salad and coleslaw.
Back then, I ate my white sauce with fries and that is what made me think that Tater Tots might be a better accompaniment because their dumpiness is the perfectly sized to dip into what is essentially a puddle of horseradish, white vinegar, and cayenne-prickled mayonnaise. This is a hyper-local sauce made from well-known condiments. Serving it to accompany Tater Tots, darling of the freezer aisle, and itself a nationally famous food that is slowly infiltrating the menus of other countries couldn’t sound more American if it tried. Burckhardt asks in her book: “Is one ever closer to the Deity than when consuming Tater Tot Casserole?” but I would argue that Tater Tots dipped into Alabama White Sauce comes pretty darn near.
MY TATER TOTS
2lbs/900g large baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 tablespoon plain flour
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon dried dill
Salt and ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
Heat the oven to 450°F/ 230°C. Pierce the potatoes and place them on a baking tray in the oven. You will need to bake them until they pierce easily with a knife but retain some firmness in their centres. This will take about around 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the potatoes from the oven and allow to cool until you can easily handle them. Now, peel away their skins using a sharp knife. Shred the potatoes using the large-holed side of a box grater into a bowl, sprinkle in the flour, herbs, ground garlic, onion powder and salt, and mix until combined. To form the tots, you will need a generous teaspoon of potato mixture per tot which you will need to form into a cylinder about 5cm long and 3cm wide. Place each one on a baking sheet until you’ve used the last of the mixture.
Heat the vegetable oil to 375°F in a deep pan or use your deep fat fryer. When the oil has reached temperature, add the tots separately, four or five to the pan and fry them until they are golden and crispy. Remember not to overcrowd them and allow the oil to return to heat in between each batch of frying. Each batch will take about three to four minutes to fry. When done, transfer them to a hot, paper towel-lined plate to drain. You’ll have enough Tater Tots for two very hungry people or four as a small side.
ALABAMA WHITE SAUCE
8fl oz mayonnaise
3fl oz white vinegar
2fl oz apple juice
2 teaspoons creamed horseradish
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Add all the ingredients to a large bowl and blend until combined. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you think it needs it. This sauce will keep in the fridge for a maximum of one week. It is quite runny and vinegary and not at all tidy to eat, so have napkins to hand. You’ll have leftovers, too. I like to make this sauce in advance and leave it a few hours to allow the flavours to meld.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale