It’s a rare restaurant that serves tater tot hotdish, a meal that binds the sacred and the profane with a single can of cream of mushroom soup: There’s the immaculate golden lid; the meaty sludge. Stray Dog in Minneapolis has a brisket version smothered in bechamel, and the now-closed Haute Dish was known for its beef short rib rendition. At her new restaurant, Bernie’s, Molly Yeh — Food Network star of Girl Meets Farm, cookbook author, and erstwhile blogger — serves hotdish in a small iron skillet. Flavors rotate (taco hotdish recently hit the menu) but her renditions are topped, reliably, with golden tots.
Yeh and her husband, Nick Hagen, opened Bernie’s in East Grand Forks last fall. They rehabbed the former Whitey’s Wonderbar, a speakeasy that served bootlegged liquor and Coney Island hot dogs during Minnesota’s rollicking Prohibition era and endured as a restaurant for decades after that. Wanting to honor the history of the space, they kept the massive horseshoe bar and the vintage exterior lettering. (The restaurant is named for Yeh and Hagen’s first daughter, Bernie.) Inside, the space is washed with sunlight and outfitted with carved wooden booths and a chalkboard, evoking a modern farmhouse.
“I didn’t want this to be a trendy place where you have to be young and hip and wear wide-leg jeans and clogs,” says Yeh. “I wanted everybody to feel welcome — with kids, for all generations to feel comfortable there, and to feel like it’s a place they can go every single day.”
Bernie’s menu has a little bit of almost everything that defines Yeh’s cooking. There are “inklings of Jewishness,” as she puts it (potato challah, mandel bread, coconut macaroons) and Scandinavian influences (cardamom buns, a smorgasbord of smoked salmon and soft-boiled eggs). There is, in the salami, ham, and Havarti-stuffed Wondersub, her instinct for packing as many satisfying ingredients into a dish as she can; in the sugar cookies and “baloney” sandwiches, there’s her unembarrassed simplicity. Bernie’s small market sells harissa, za’atar, and halva. There are a few distinctly Minnesotan dishes on the menu, too: burger patties flecked with wild rice; whitefish spread on toast; and cookie salad, a dessert of vanilla pudding studded with shortbread and mandarin orange slices. And, of course, there’s hotdish.
“Hotdish,” in all its starchy mystique, is simply the Minnesotan name for casserole — it can be made with any variation of meat, starch, veggies, and binding sauce. Tater tot hotdish, though, is especially iconic. Yeh says she loves the classic version, which leans heavily on Campbell’s and canned corn. But her signature recipe uses a homemade, bechamel-like soup made with heavy cream, a quarter-cup of pale ale, and a dusting of nutmeg. Sam Sifton’s New York Times tater tot casserole recipe is an adaptation of Yeh’s, which he first ate at her East Grand Forks farmhouse alongside venison and lefse. “It’s goofy, right? It’s covered in tots,” says Yeh. “But if you get great ingredients in there, it can be so, so, so special.” Her first crack at hotdish writ large was a variation on the “Chinese hotdish” she found in her mother-in-law’s 1984 church recipe book. Topped with fried chow mein noodles, Yeh’s version swapped out cream of chicken soup for coconut milk and hamburger for ground chicken or pork; she added fresh ginger and scallions. In the years since, she’s added new recipes to the roster, riffing with corn dog hotdish, harissa chickpea hotdish, and a Passover brisket hotdish nestled beneath smiley-face fries.
Yeh and Hagen live with their two young daughters on Hagen’s family’s fifth-generation farm, where they grow sugar beets and hard red wheat and tend a small flock of retired chickens. (“They’re living out their best life, free-ranging on the farm,” says Yeh. “They don’t really lay eggs anymore.”) They have a few apple trees and a garden, where ruby stalks of rhubarb shoot up every spring. The region, a patchwork of large-scale soybean, wheat, sugar beet, and potato farms, has fertile prairie soils. “There truly is such a beautiful, amazing, expansive growing situation,” says Yeh. “Rhubarb, potatoes, sweet corn — there are so many crops here.”
Yeh grew up a few states away, outside Chicago. She attended Juilliard for percussion (once the glockenspielist for the pop band San Fermin, she’s performed off-Broadway and at Carnegie Hall) before decamping to Brooklyn, where she and Hagen started dating. In 2013, they made the leap to East Grand Forks to live on the farm. There, Yeh’s blog, My Name Is Yeh, grew. Her unique, memoiristic blogging style led to a cookbook and the Food Network show Girl Meets Farm, which she films in her farmhouse kitchen. Yeh’s recipes often weave in elements of her Chinese and Jewish heritage: mapo tofu and chocolate sesame balls, brunch brisket and marzipan mandel bread. In East Grand Forks, she’s been steeped in Hagen’s family’s Scandinavian food traditions. His great-great-grandfather left Norway in 1871 with a vast wave of Scandinavian immigrants that settled in Minnesota — half a million Swedes and Norwegians had arrived by the early 20th century.
“We always have lefse rolled up with butter and sugar at our holiday dinner tables,” says Yeh. “Nick’s aunt has this great recipe for blotkake, a fluffy cream cake. We had a Norwegian blood-sausage-making party shortly after Nick and I got married. That was an eye-opening experience.”
Hotdish’s origins are a little more opaque than lefse’s. The documentary Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story surmises that the dish dates to World War I, when the U.S. Food Administration’s Food Will Win the War campaign implored Americans to ration their groceries so that more could be sent overseas to the Army. The casserole had a wartime sense of economy: meat for sustenance, starch for fuel, vegetables for virtue. This kind of cooking thrived during the Great Depression, too, and through the mid-20th century. In Minnesota, hotdish found a cultural foothold that sent it sailing to new heights: the Lutheran potluck. (Thanks to its abundant Scandinavian- and German-descended residents, the state has a big Lutheran population, one whose culinary legacy rests on a long folding table laden with Crock-Pots, funeral potatoes, and coffee cake.)
The first documented hotdish recipe, which calls for hamburger and Creamettes, appeared in the 1930 Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook, from Mankato, Minnesota. It’s an austere, five-sentence paragraph, but it conjures the glassy sheen of Jell-O salad, the murmuring line of congregants at the serving table, and the damp smell of cement walls: the church basement dinner. In 1956, Ore-Ida tater tots hit grocery shelves, and hotdish changed forever.
These days, hotdish is an idea as much as a food, a kind of shorthand for classic Minnesota cooking. At its best, it represents a Midwestern lack of pretense. The hotdish’s rough-hewn beauty lies in its comfort: in warm ovens on snowy days, in traipsing February slush through the canned goods aisle, and in the beautiful, pragmatic way that ground beef cooks in its own fat. At its worst, hotdish is a gag, one that implies the culinary backwardness of the Midwest and reinforces its greatest myth — that of a homogeneously white, spice-averse palate. Pedestaled as Minnesota’s defining dish and flanked by church basement staples like lutefisk and lefse, hotdish makes it harder to see berbere-laced beef tibs and Somali shaah; coarse-ground Hmong sausage and glassy pho broth blooming with anise. Hotdish obscures the Indigenous foods that have been eaten here since long before the first lefse was rolled on the Great Plains: venison, walleye, wild rice, blueberries.
Yeh acknowledges that. It’s important, she says, to recognize the state’s vastly diverse cuisines. But in her eyes, the church basement dinner is a rich culinary legacy in its own right — one that’s worth putting on a restaurant menu, or cooking on an unremarkable Tuesday night. “I came to this region thinking, My gosh, I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve been exposed to it all,” says Yeh. “When I got here, I realized, Wait a second — no, I haven’t. Why isn’t anybody talking about these types of dishes, and these crops, and these recipes outside of this region?”
For all the nostalgia that imbues hotdish — for all the fierce territoriality about the use of canned cream soup versus homemade — it likely doesn’t grace Minnesota dinner tables as often as it did during its midcentury heyday. Same goes for lefse, and all the salads (Snickers, cookie, and popcorn). Any new life breathed into them, taco hotdish or classic tot, keeps them alive. “The church potluck recipes and the heritage recipes are super unique and really special,” says Yeh. “I do see them poked fun at. But the joke is on them, because these things are delicious.”