Every city has its share of cherished local eateries, those mom-and-pop joints where the vibe is funky and the fare, outsiders are assured, is totally unique. So here’s a scandalous bit of news: in recent years, the menus of hipster dens from coast to coast have actually been serving the same item—one that’s actually six decades old and can be found in the supermarket down the street. It’s Tater Tots.
Act appalled if you want—but chances are, you like them, too. Unlike most convenience foods from the postwar era, Tater Tots have been given a pass to reenter the culture. Hipsters and foodies who wouldn’t be caught dead at the same table with Jell-O, Spam or Fish Sticks will unabashedly dig into Tater Tots. Each year, Americans stuff their cheeks with 70 million pounds of them.
What makes those little Tots so appealing? Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, believes there are several factors at play. Restaurants like Tots because they’re a highly adaptable starch. There’s also the nostalgia factor that sees younger people suddenly digging the foods their parents ate as kids. And then there’s that ineffable quality that only these little slugs of deep-fried potato shreds can produce. “They’re crunchy and salty and soft and they’ve got their own very specific smell that doesn’t smell like fries,” she said. “So you have the whole sensorial thing.”
Imagine a world where such sensorial things didn’t exist. It nearly happened. During the Great Depression, F. Nephi Grigg and his brother Golden were struggling potato farmers who got into the french-fry business after buying a bankrupt flash-freezing plant. (Since the Oregon factory was near the Idaho border, the brothers named their new company Ore-Ida.) French fries require choice center cuts from the potato and, initially, the Grigg brothers sold the trimmed-off scraps for animal feed. One day in 1953, the thrifty Nephi decided to grind up the potato scraps, add some spices, roll them into pellets and deep fry them. And lo, culinary history was made.
Today, “Tater Tots” has become a proprietary eponym, the downside being that any generic knockoff that looks like a Tater Tot is called a Tater Tot. (The “Tots” you’ll see on menus probably don’t come from an Ore-Ida bag.) In 2014, the brand tried to rectify this problem with a campaign touting “the original and only Tater Tots” and deriding “Imi-Taters.”
Despite the inroads made by imposters, chances are Tater Tots will be just fine. In fact, the next generation is already eating them. Melissa Minehan, Ore-Ida’s associate director of brand building, says that she’s heard from parents who make Tater Tots “because the shape is easy for their kids to hold. Some even admitted they use [them] as a bartering tool to get their kids to eat the less desirable parts of their meal.”
Fried hash-brown potatoes more popular than vegetables? Shocking.