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Every Tuesday at 7:42 a.m. and 5:18 p.m., Tom Harte shares a few thoughts on food and shares recipes. A founder of “My Daddy’s Cheesecake,” a bakery/café in Cape Girardeau, a food columnist for The Southeast Missourian, and a cookbook author, he also blends his passion for food with his passion for classical music in his daily program, The Caffe Concerto.

A Harte Appetite: The Origin Story of Tater Tots

flickr user stu_spivack (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

You may have never heard of Nephi Grigg, but if you’ve ever eaten a meal at a grade school cafeteria, you’ve probably been served his signature culinary invention.

Grigg and his brother in 1951 became convinced that the wave of the future was frozen food.

So they mortgaged their homes and financed half a million dollars to acquire a frozen food plant and started a business shipping frozen corn to western states under the name Ore-Ida, a reference to their plant’s location near the Oregon and Idaho border.

The following year Ore-Ida began manufacturing frozen French fries. Today it is the leading brand of frozen potato products in America.

But wait, there’s more.  Ore-Ida’s dominance of the potato field, so to speak, is not due to French fry production but instead to a byproduct of it, for when French fries are cut from whole potatoes there are scraps left behind.  The Griggs were disconcerted that they could do little else with those shavings than sell them for a pittance as livestock feed.

So Nephi came up with another idea.  He had the potato leavings ground, mixed with spices, formed into barrel-shaped nuggets, and fried.  When he took fifteen pounds of samples of the new product to the National Potato Convention (yes, there’s one every year) they were a sensation.  And they have been ever since, a staple of school cafeteria menus and grocery store frozen food cases to the tune of billions consumed annually.

The Grigg brothers, like the inventor of Velcro, the creator of the underwire bra, or the first prisoner to tie bedsheets together to make a ladder, were hardly the first to discover that necessity is the mother of invention, but they are the only ones I know who managed to turn cattle feed into a popular American snack.


Tater Tot Galette

This recipe, adapted from one by San Francisco chef Jen Pelka in Food & Wine magazine, is a long way from the Tater Tots we used to get in the grade school cafeteria.

8 cups thawed Tater Tots
Flaky sea salt
1 and ½ tablespoons crème fraiche
3 thin slices smoked salmon
dill sprigs
heaping tablespoon caviar
fresh lemon juice

Heat an 8-inch round waffle iron.  Grease iron with nonstick spray and evenly spread two cups tater tots over it.  Sprinkle with salt.  Close and cook on medium high for five minutes or until nearly crisp.  Open waffle iron and fill in any holes with more Tater Tots.  Close and cook another 2-3 minutes or until crispy.  Remove waffle from iron and top with crème fraiche, salmon, dill sprigs, caviar and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Serve immediately. 

Tom Harte is a retired faculty member from Southeast Missouri State University where he was an award-winning teacher, a nationally recognized debate coach, and chair of the department of Speech Communication and Theatre.
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