No, I’m not misspelling it. “Tator Tot Casserole” is the heading at the top of the classic, comforting recipe that I got from my first-grade teacher, Barb Kurth, in West Allis, Wisconsin, in 1980 or 1981. Our teacher had asked us to bring our favorite recipes into school for a class cookbook. She published the book using the copy machine in the teacher’s lounge and bound it with a blue paper cover. At least, that’s how I remember it. At our house, the recipe that stuck was the one from Ms. Kurth.
The original book seems to be long gone. My mom recently looked through three boxes of memories, packed with decades-old elementary-school projects, and she couldn’t find it. However, she does have the index card on which she printed my favorite comfort-food recipe using her work computer sometime in the late eighties.
We’re not sure if what’s on the card is my teacher’s recipe exactly. My mom might’ve been the one who spelled “tater” with an o. In the years since, I’ve made my own changes, anyway. I use ground venison instead of ground beef. It’s less fatty than beef and I harvest it myself. I dice, or even mince, my onions for a better texture. My condensed mushroom soup is usually organic and packaged in a box, not a can, and I don’t go for a full “can of milk,” because that makes the casserole too soupy for me. I use a splash of milk or even water. I may use more or less than a “package” of tater tots, because I buy my tots in bulk-sized bags. And I always add the optional corn.
Maybe you have your own tater tot casserole recipe. Maybe you like the looks of the one on the card more than my adaptation. Maybe you’re in the mood for something more elaborate. Under any circumstances, I hope you’ll try a tater tot casserole on a cold night this winter, and I hope it brings you as much nostalgia and satisfaction as it brings me. To me, Tator Tot Casserole is the flavor of winter in the Upper Midwest.