Hey, everyone. Remember this guy?
Yeah. It’s the Hamburger Helper guy. No one knows why he’s just three fingers and a thumb, and no one wants to think what will happen if he actually touches a hot pan — but he was my introduction to one-pot meals.
I was 20, living in Queens, New York with my friend Sarah, and she was from Rochester. I don’t think I’d ever eaten Hamburger Helper before I saw her eating it one night. At the time, I was making $18,000 a year, and I was stunned at how rich and savory cheap ground beef and a meal out of a box could taste.
I think this is largely because, when I was growing up, my mom made traditional Taiwanese meals. At a minimum, there was one protein, one veg, and rice, of course. Most nights there was two veg. Every night for dinner our meals looked like something I’d now recognize as coming straight off a restaurant menu.
My mom never seemed to really enjoy making these meals, and I don’t blame her now.
We moved back to California to be closer to my parents about seven years ago, and I remember exactly how I felt when my dad showed up to dinner at my house, saw what was being served, and said, “That’s it?”
Yep, Just like that.
I guess I couldn’t blame him.
And at some point, my mom realized that most American women were serving steak and salad for dinner. Or spaghetti and meatballs. But she couldn’t buck her training or tradition, so one protein, two veg, sometimes soup, and rice it was most of the time.
Every night. My brother reminds me that she set the table every night, too, with pretty matching place place mats and napkins, silverware and chopsticks.
I think this is the reason I have an affinity to casseroles, now. After Hamburger Helper, they became my next obsession, and I haven’t really been able to shake the weird interest I have in them. I still can’t quite reconcile the magic of the fact that you can throw things in one dish, put the whole shebang into an oven, and have it come out, presto change-o, into a meal that feels like home.
To me, a casserole feels exactly like what it’s supposed to be, comfort food. So when my friend Mindy, years ago, told me about something called Minnesota Hot Dish, I had to ask her what it was. Well, it’s a tater tot casserole, is what it is.
Very recently I stuck a post onto my Facebook page asking people about Minnesota hot dish. I have now established that it is ground beef; cream of mushroom soup; some kind of frozen granular vegetable that you can count — peas or corn — and that extraordinary topping of tater tots.
Sometimes, if my mother were very tired and my dad wasn’t going to be home for dinner she would serve us cream of mushroom soup over toast. And this I feel is some kind of comfort food, too. I always think of these meals that she made if it was just us kids and her as being our little secret, something she shared with us and us alone.
But when my dad was home, it was protein, two veg, rice.
Another friend sent over a recipe that she said she still thinks about, even years after moving to a location too far from the bar that serves it. This particular restaurant’s hot dish, she said, involves Cremini mushrooms in béchamel sauce and some kind of Brussels sprout concoction. In place of the ground beef, the restaurant’s recipe calls for brisket. She said she thought it might be too hipster.
She was right, you know.
As I compared the recipes friends sent over to me, I realized that I was looking for a recipe that would embody the woman I knew my mother to be when she was trying to raise two kids and learn a new language: too busy to béchamel; too scattered for sprouts.
Eventually, my friend Louis sent me a recipe he said had come from his wife’s childhood in South Dakota. It is called 5-Can Hot Dish, and it is a miracle of joy and convenience.
It calls for the busy woman to open up five cans and stir them all together, and then hock it into a casserole pan and then into the oven. And the thing is topped with potato chips, not tater tots, I think because they hadn’t been invented when Julie’s mother cooked from this particular book.* You throw those on at the very last minute.
This recipe, I think, swings too far in the opposite direction for me to love it. There’s no care taken in the opening of cans and chucking ingredients in willy-nilly.
I think my distaste at each of these wildly opposite recipes — the hipster hot dish and the 5-can extrava…uh, canza—reveals to me just what it is I see when I look at these one-pot wonders: To me, they speak of the recipes I wish my mother had had access to when she first moved here.
If she had known about them, she would have embraced the steps she would have had to take, the ones that involved work: dicing the onion, browning the meat, layering the casserole, spreading the tater tots onto the top of it.
And then she would have also, with joy, dumped the whole thing in the oven, set it and forgotten it, put her feet up for a precious half hour, maybe learning English from some soap operas, before she got up to set the table for our family dinner.
*5-Can Hot Dish recipe by Elva Bishman comes from the United Methodist Church Cookbook (South Dakota). Big thanks to Louis Turpin. It also involves something called “chow mein vegetables.” I have no idea how to draw those. And also, if count all the cans and use Pringles instead of a bag of chips, it’s a 7-Can Hot Dish. Which is…ooo-eeee.