Diatribe with Dave: Casserole Culture Clash

Diatribe with Dave: Casserole Culture Clash

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

My relatives from the Midwest think I'm nuts. Let me say that one again. My relatives from the Midwest think I'm nuts. They don't think I'm nuts like everyone else does. Most people think I'm a jumping-off-the-roof-into-a-Palm-Springs-pool-while-holding-a-pastrami-sandwich-and-half-empty-bottle-of-whiskey kind of nuts. Or-shooting-guns-at-VVR nuts. In fact, they don't even know about the really insane stuff I do and they STILL think I'm nuts.

Now, I love them and they love me but that's just the way it is. Why do they think I'm nuts? Well, I eat dinner (their supper) at 10 o'clock at night for one. And the whole club soda thing is weird to them. However, there is one thing that we and all red-blooded Americans can agree on. Red state, blue state. Rich, poor. Young, old. Man, woman. White collar, blue collar. It doesn't matter. And what is that?

Tater tots are good.

You know who doesn't like tater tots?

Communists. Communists don't like tater tots. Ever see a photo of Khrushchev, Stalin or Brezhnev diving into a plate of ketchup-slathered tater tots? I rest my case.

In the Midwest there a this strange (to me) phenomena called "Sunday Dinner." We have a version here in OC. We call it "brunch" and it usually involves copious amounts of avocado/egg/cheese dishes, free flowing Bloody Marys and the Yacht Rock guys at Memphis at the Santora spinning schlocky tunes from the 70's and 80's. Their version involves gallons of post-church sweet tea, an absolute sea of wonderful casseroles and something called "visiting."

A few years back I spent a quiet afternoon with the much-beloved Grandma Wilson in Altamont, Illinois; this is where I was first exposed to this Sunday dinner phenomena. There I sat, a bit confused at first, but soon dropped my OC angst and settled in for the ride. Then the magic happened. Sitting in a casserole dish was something that looked like, well, tater tots on top of what appeared to be a beefy, cheesy mix. What could this be? I had only had tots solo; the first time ever was in the cafeteria at Baldwin Stocker Elementary when I was a kid. I put a spoonful on my plate and tried a bite.

Yowzers.... "Go ahead and slide that back on over here," said I.

Now, this Tater Tot casserole is not for the faint of heart. It's a potent combination of ground beef, cheese and carbs. A perfect nap-inducer, it is a fitting way to start a relaxing Sunday afternoon. I love regional differences in food, and one of the biggest ones between OC and the Midwest, aside from the anomaly of lots of canned vegetables out there, is the embracing of casserole culture (as Dave Lieberman so wonderfully wrote about before). Here it's more kitsch, klatch and retro-cool. There, it is a way of life, and whether it's my mother-in-law's simple yet amazing lasagna or Lillian's tater tot concoction it seems all the good stuff out there comes in the same rectangular form. And I'll never forget my first Midwest family reunion where I spied literally yards upon yards them.

All at Casa de Mau are big fans of vintage Pyrex. This is one dish that absolutely belongs in that beat-up 40-year-old OG baking dish, fo sho. Here's the recipe, you'll need:

2lbs ground beef

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

1 onion-diced

2 cups cooked rice

I bag Tater Tots

4 cups shredded cheese (your choice)

2 tsp Lawry's seasoned salt

Ground pepper to taste

Preheated oven at 350 degrees

Brown ground beef with onion, pepper and seasoned salt, cook and drain fat. Add soup mix, rice and 1 cup cheese and mix. Pour into an 8x12 inch-baking dish. Add the rest of cheese on top; line up tater tots carefully over the top like a piecrust. Bake for one hour at 350, remove and let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

This fine holiday season, the wife and I are making the cross-country trek to celebrate a very special time of year with a very special lady. We will enjoy some fine food and company with loved ones in a land that has, for some reason, (almost) accepted me as one of their own. Most importantly—Lillian, here's to you, your cooking and your heart that warms me like the sun. We are all the better for having you in our lives.

All photos by Dave Mau, if you already haven't got the drift...

Oh, and thanks for a darned tasty casserole too...

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