Hot dish, the Minnesota-specific church-supper stalwart that cooks in other parts of the country might mistake for a casserole, is no stranger to hard work.
Early versions of the dish — traditionally a mix of protein, starch and vegetables held together with a creamy sauce baked until it bubbles — helped conserve meat during World War I and fed farm families during the Depression. Topped with Tater Tots or mixed with rice, more modern renditions offer working parents an inexpensive way to get dinner on the table after a long day.
Now, hot dish has been conscripted to help Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, win the Democratic nomination for president.
In a series of events that began in New Hampshire last summer and continued this month in Iowa, Klobuchar has been feeding her recipe, blanketed in Tater Tots, to voters at gatherings the campaign calls Hot Dish House Parties.
“Hot dish is a great unifier — just like Amy,” the campaign’s cheery invitations read.
The events are essentially small potlucks with campaign literature and a glass baking dish filled with Klobuchar’s Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish, named after a rock mined in the Iron Range of Minnesota.
The candidate herself has showed up at some, but last week she had to stay in Washington for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. She sent her daughter, Abigail Bessler, 24, the legislative director for Keith Powers, a New York City councilman. Bessler grew up eating hot dish, and knows her mother’s recipe by heart.
The actual making of the hot dish, however, falls to campaign workers. In Iowa, that worker is Andy McGuire, 63, a physician who is also the state campaign chairwoman.
“I’ve gotten good at the recipe,” she said. “I have seven kids, so I can cook.”
Hot dish has as many variations as there are cooks. McGuire has made her own version for years, using frozen mixed vegetables, onions, hamburger and condensed cream of mushroom soup, which some Midwestern cooks affectionately call “the Lutheran binder.” It’s topped with Tater Tots.
The senator’s recipe omits the frozen vegetables, adds garlic and tucks the Tater Tots between two layers of shredded pepper Jack cheese.
“It’s a little spicier than some Iowans might like,” McGuire said. But she concedes it’s better than her own recipe, which she picked up when her children went to camp in Minnesota.
“Hot dish is a symbol of coming together, of a time when we weren’t so rude to each other,” she said. “Caucuses are very much a neighborly coming together, so it’s the perfect thing.”
As Klobuchar, 59, trails four other candidates in some polls as Iowa heads into its Feb. 3 caucuses, it’s hard to tell whether the house parties are helping. But they are doing a lot to raise the profile of hot dish, which most Americans have probably never heard of unless they grew up in certain parts of the Midwest, including the Dakotas and parts of Wisconsin.
Still, using hot dish to telegraph familiarity in Iowa, a state that largely uses the term casserole to describe the baked one-dish suppers, could be seen as a misstep.
That possibility is one Erin Grace, a columnist for The Omaha World-Herald, explored last week when she covered one of the Klobuchar events in Stanton, Iowa, population 641. Grace tried to parse the difference between a hot dish and a casserole in an article.
“I was deeply attracted to the word ‘hot dish’ and this idea of comfort food in a time of political discomfort,” she said in an interview. “The hot dish is just a way for her to say, ‘See? I’m your neighbor up here. I’m familiar,’ even though nobody in Iowa calls it a hot dish.”
Katie Rohman, 38, the managing editor of The Duluth News Tribune, found Klobuchar’s piece of political theater amusing. She contended there was no difference between a hot dish and a casserole. “Really, I think it’s a matter of location,” she said.
Not so, said Andrew Zimmern, the television star who moved to Minneapolis in 1992. He has deep reverence for hot dish, which he says is a specific subcategory of a genre of layered one-pan recipes that includes lasagna and pastitsio.
“It represents the three pillars of the Midwest: thrift, hospitality and farm history,” he said.
Zimmern has made fancy versions with braised turkey legs and velouté, but always comes back to a family recipe with ground beef and turkey, frozen green beans, cream of mushroom soup and Tater Tots.
Zimmern is a friend of Klobuchar, whom he interviewed for his new MSNBC series “What’s Eating America,” which premieres Feb. 16 and explores issues like hunger and immigration through the lens of food. Klobuchar, who grew up as the child of an alcoholic father, appears on the episode about addiction.
This is not hot dish’s first turn in the political barrel. Al Franken, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota, started a hot-dish competition in 2011 as a way to bring together the state’s congressional delegation. The recipe Klobuchar uses for her house parties won the inaugural competition.
“It’s always nice to put aside our differences and come together over some great hot dish,” Franken said in 2016, the year he entered his Land of 10,000 Calories hot dish, made with pork shoulder and Ritz crackers.
In 2017, Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, won with his Right to Bear Arms hot dish, built from bear meat. Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the same party, took the top award in 2019 with her Hot Dish A-Hmong Friends, an amalgam of sautéed carrots, cabbage and ground beef topped with fried egg-roll wrappers that paid homage to the large Hmong population in her district.
She had competition from Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a Republican, who used eggs, sharp Cheddar, 2 pounds of bacon and a pound of pork sausage for his Make’n Bacon Great Again hot dish, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, whose chickpea, chutney and Tater Tot dish called Little Moga-Hot-Dishu was inspired by a Minnesota blogger’s samosa chaat dish.
The winner receives a trophy fashioned from a glass baking pan, the preferred vessel in which to bake hot dish.
In Iowa last week, the hot dish was both unifying and gently divisive. Melissa Fath, a Klobuchar supporter, hosted a house party in Iowa City with her husband, Ron Sullivan, who supports a rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Warren isn’t having a hot-dish meeting,” she told him.
Despite that bit of marital shade, the events mixed Minnesota nice with Iowa nice.
“Down here we see so many candidates that we like to know them personally, but in a way that’s not too intrusive,” said Vicky Rossander, a retired teacher who hosted one of the Klobuchar house parties with her husband, Harry, who retired from the Army and recently has changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent.
She threw her spaghetti casserole into the oven, just in case Klobuchar’s hot dish and whatever other potluck food arrived wasn’t enough. The 30 or so neighbors and members of the news media who showed up ate every last bit of the senator’s hot dish. Rossander liked it so much she is keeping the recipe.
But she might still just call it a casserole.
“I think it’s like the whole Coke-soda-pop thing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you call it. We all know what it is.”