North Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture Communication
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February 14, 2003

Plains Folk: Hot Dishes

Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

I keep reading about people across the country that are proponents of "slow food." This is a movement among affluent young folks who are dropping out of the bar scene, having friends over, and rediscovering the virtues of cooking good food. I donít seem to meet any of these people, perhaps because I am too old to be acquainted with them, but I suspect itís because there are about four of them in each major city, and all the food writers are interviewing and enthusing about the same precious handful of beautiful people.

If there is such a movement out there, well and good, because urban and rural, across North America, home cooking is in trouble. Old coots like me like to blame this on the lack of time and respect accorded family rituals by young people.  Does anyone consider that maybe cooking at home is not good enough to come home for?

Nor should we lay blame on changes in gender roles, women working outside the home and all that. In the first place, who says women have to do the cooking? And in the second place--here Iím going to get into trouble--with all due respect to the laudable ladies of my country church, and to those plains folk everywhere who have kept the home fires of culinary culture burning, most people forgot how to cook good food long before women went out into the workplace. Fast food was not crammed down our throats by multinational corporations. We invited it into our homes sometime in the middle of the twentieth century.

Growing up in a Lutheran parish in central Kansas, I am no stranger to that sacramental institution, the hot dish, often the object of ridicule, but still the mainstay of potlucks. On the Northern Plains these trends are even more prevalent, both the ridicule and the mainstay status.

What I have come to question, though, is the idea that the hot dish (a.k.a. casserole) is a particularly Lutheran (or Norwegian or Swedish or German) institution. I investigated this in the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. What I discovered by browsing the TX (food) shelves is that well into the twentieth century, hot dishes were almost unknown in Lutheran circles.

Where hot dishes first showed up was in the cookbooks of Anglo-American women in such institutions as the federated womenís clubs.  The convenient casserole resulted from the drive for efficiency and timesaving in the kitchens of women with English surnames. Lutherans and other descendants of more recent immigrants adopted hot-dish ways later.

Whoever started it, itís gone too far. Iím looking now at the North Dakota centennial cookbook, which in addition to your usual hamburger hot dish and tater tot recipes submits for our consideration (Twilight Zone reference intentional) something called a "Fiesta Stack-Up." This is a concoction of hamburger, canned beans, canned tomatoes, crushed corn ships, cooked rice, and I am not making this up, a 17-ounce can of coconut. Letís take this to its logical conclusion. I suggest that anyone can create a notable hot dish by employing my formula, which I call the Lutheran Recipe Factory.  Simply choose your ingredients from three groups, taking care to include at least one from each group.

Group 1: Bulk. This includes hamburger meat, tater tots, canned tomatoes, canned pork & beans, frozen mixed vegetables, elbow macaroni, fruit cocktail and Rice Krispies.

Group 2: Lubricants. Select from cream of mushroom soup, cream of celery soup, cream of chicken soup, Cheez Whiz, ketchup, evaporated milk, butter and more butter.

Group 3: Fancy Stuff. Here add chocolate chips, marshmallows, Jell-O, M&Ms, pimento-stuffed olives and canned French-fried onions.

Have I left anything out? Whatever, throw that in, too.


Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2941,
Editor: Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,


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