Food has always been my passion. I remember the first dish I ever cooked. I was thirteen. It was an apple crisp recipe out of a Better Homes and Garden cookbook my mom kept in a kitchen drawer. My dad made fun of me and called me Bobby Crocker. My mom tried to be supportive, but I think she thought that wearing an apron and running a five-speed hand mixer would make me turn out gay. I did turn out gay, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't from whipping up my first hot dessert just as I hit the throes of puberty.
After mortuary science, cooking school was my first career choice. Neither option panned out, and in the end I became an educator. But cooking is in my blood. Both of my grandfathers were great cooks, a rare phenomenon in poor, working class families, and my grandmothers, my sisters and my mother are all creators of signature family dishes that I've built into my own repertoire over the years: liver stew, boiled dinner, potato soup with dumplings, shit-on-the-shingles. Yum, yum! The grand daddy of all family recipes, though, is my sister Theresa’s Tater Tot Casserole. It’s made with a conglomeration of ground burger, canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup (how utterly Midwestern), shredded cheddar cheese, and of course a layer of tater tots on top. Individually, these ingredients don't sound very appealing, but mix 'em together, bake for a couple of hours, and you've got the best example of comfort food you'll ever eat.
You won't find the recipe in bon apetite, but in my world Tater Tot Casserole (TTC) has become the gold standard by which all other recipes are compared. I can’t take credit for giving it that label, though. That honor goes to my best friend Jake. He and I shared a basement apartment in Reno, Nevada, in the early 90’s where we were both working on doctorate degrees in writing. I tried the recipe on him shortly after my sister sent it to me. This quintessential California boy had never traveled east of the Mississippi River, grew up on L.A. culture and cuisine, and spoke with an accent that was very different from my own Midwestern drawl, so I had no idea how he would take to such an unfamiliar offering.
It was a hit, of course, and Jake began applying the TTC standard to all other meals. Even mine. “This is good meatloaf,” he’d say, “but it’s no tater tot casserole.” And he was usually right. So it is in Jake’s honor that I am creating the Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal of Excellence. Since my lunch buddy, Stephanie, and I will spend a lot of time sampling the food of Flint’s Mexican restaurants in the coming months, we will be on the lookout for the single best Mexican dish in Flint, and I will bestow upon that restaurant the Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal of Excellence.
The criteria will be simple. The winning dish must:
-provide a high level of comfort
-combine distinct flavors and tastes to create a Superflavor (a flavor that is bigger than the sum of its parts)
-contain at least one unhealthy ingredient
-be authentic. No Tex-Mex!
I’ve already had lunch with Stephanie at two places—the subject of my next post—and there is at least one serious contender at this early stage. Now that I know El Nopal still exists, you can bet I’ll be paying them a visit to try the chimichanga dinner that two years ago would have been the undisputed Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal winner. Their new location, by the way, is on North Saginaw Street, just north of Pierson Road. I’m planning a visit later this week.