It’s week seven of lockdown, or maybe eight, or maybe it’s actually 25 — time seems to loop, like life is now one of the more unsettling episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Billions of microbes have lived and died in the sticky slurry of your sourdough starter, and the last two loaves turned out gummy and flat. All those beautiful bags of beans taste exactly the same, like beans. The grocery store is out of weird things now, like ice cream with crunchy bits and pecans and soy sauce. Your farm box overflows with obligations to cook vegetables, again, forever, until you or they rot. The complicated dance of unboxing takeout, with as many hand-scrubbings as open-heart surgery, is unbearable. It’s time for tots.
The Tater Tot is the ribollita of the American processed food industry, a dish made of scraps and leavings that is maybe more beloved than the food of whose scraps it’s made. Invented by the frozen potato impresarios behind Ore-Ida in the 1950s, Tater Tots are neat spherical nubbins of potato shavings leftover from making french fries, which are then formed, fried, and frozen. Their natural habitats are Wednesday night dinners and school cafeterias. (Ore-Ida, now owned by Kraft Heinz, holds a trademark on “Tater Tot,” but any tot-like potato ingot applies here.) When done right, the Tater Tot’s crispy, textured exterior yields to a creamy middle, and their small size allows for an endless cascade of crunchy-to-creamy texture while eating. Unlike french fries, which are vastly superior made in a fryer by professionals, Tater Tots are pretty damn good made at home.
There are two modes of quarantine cooking: project cooking and fuck it cooking. The tot, a surprisingly versatile ingredient, satisfies both. For the completely fed up, the Tater Tot in its purest form, as a hot crispy nugget, is a mere ripped-open bag and 20-ish minutes in a hot oven away. They’re delightful with something else utterly uncomplicated like scrambled eggs or a pork chop, or maybe with nothing more than ketchup or a beer. If you want a little variety, you can sprinkle a spice mix on them — maybe Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or Old Bay — or grate some parmesan, or sprinkle some herbs. Now you’ve got fancy tots.
From there, things can get as complicated as you like. Tater Tots are the second-most popular potato item in food service — Nation’s Restaurant News called them “the new potato skins,” a reincarnation we’ve all been anxiously awaiting — and restaurants and food trucks have made an art of gussying up tots with enough wild ingredients until they might feel worth charging $7 for. The most well-known version of tot smothering is totchos, a staple at Mexican restaurants and other nacho-friendly establishments across the northwest, where Tater Tots (or a shredded potato product closely resembling them) are heaped with cheese, salsa, olives, and sour cream. In the food truck and bar food wilds, there are baked potato tots, pastrami tots, longanisa tots, Tater Tot parm, queso tots, bulgogi tots — if you have some kind of creamy topping, fatty meat, and/or cheese, you’ve got loaded tots.
For those maintaining their sanity by cooking elaborate comfort food, tidy rows of Tater Tots crown casseroles, especially the iconic upper Midwestern casseroles known as hotdish. The most basic hotdish is not much more than some ground meat, a canned cream soup, and the kind of vegetables found in the freezer section, topped with tots. But the blogger Molly Yeh, who lives in North Dakota and has a knack for creating playful and thoughtful recipes mashing up her food nerd sensibilities with the Upper Midwestern food culture, has created an impressive array of hotdish recipes with scratch-made roux or surprising ingredients, many of them topped with tots. The chicken pot hotdish and harissa chickpea hotdish might not scream May but they do scream comfort and also: tots.
The more deranged corners of project cooking have plenty of room for tots — they waffle and pizza — and of course there’s the ultimate project: Making them yourself, which will involve cooking the potatoes, processing them into chunks, and deep-frying your tots. Michel Richard has a recipe involving gelatin, which is a very French chef way to approach tots; other recipes allege making your own is more fun than opening a bag. Maybe for some! But the only person I know making her own tots is my friend who lives in rural France and sends us pictures of the goats she meets during quarantine. If you have the good fortune to live near an American supermarket with a non-ransacked freezer case, let your sourdough starter continue to do all the mercurial work in the kitchen, and let the American food industrial complex do what it does best, which is tots.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent