The History of Hot Dish

© Eliesa Johnson

By Julia Heffelfinger Posted December 30, 2015

Hot dish is not just a casserole: It’s a Midwestern icon. Chef Gavin Kaysen modernizes the classics. 

When chef Gavin Kaysen decided to leave New York City’s acclaimed Café Boulud to go home to Minnesota and open Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, he did not expect a group of ladies from a local Lutheran church to be his most formidable critics. Kaysen, a 2007 F&W Best New Chef, clearly has affection for Midwestern comfort-food classics: His menu includes creamed spinach with panko-crusted cheese curds alongside more global recipes like scallop crudo with shiso leaf. But he’d never taken on hot dish, a layered casserole invented by budget-conscious farmwives in the 1930s that came to rely heavily on canned vegetables, creamed soup and crunchy toppings like Tater Tots or chow mein noodles. “Hot dish is a dangerous thing to play with,” Kaysen says. “There will always be someone with a grandma who makes it better.”

F&W decided to test Kaysen’s Minnesotan mettle by asking him first to bring hot dish into 2016, then to invite a few local pros—the ladies of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church—to taste- test his recipes. This community takes its culinary traditions very seriously, but the Mount Olivet crew was won over by Kaysen’s respectful attention. Gathered around a table in the center of Spoon and Stable’s spacious dining room, they stared up at him adoringly. “Chef Gavin is as cute and humble as a hot dish!” exclaimed one smitten judge.

“Hot dish is a dangerous thing to play with,” says Gavin Kaysen. “There will always be someone with a grandma who makes it better.”

The recipes were a resounding success, particularly Kaysen’s version of a chicken and wild rice hot dish his grandmother Dorothy made. Instead of using canned cream of mushroom soup, Kaysen substituted a wild mushroom gravy scented with fresh rosemary and thyme. “I would make this every Sunday!” remarked one taster. The ladies also approved of his cassoulet-like hot dish with merguez sausage, even though the “wienies” were deemed a little risqué for a church potluck. The judges’ only request? A cup of coffee to drink with the hot dish, in true Minnesota fashion.

Food & Wine: Hot Dish

© Eliesa Johnson

Hot Dish History

1930: The first recorded hot dish recipe appears in the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook from Mankato, Minnesota. The recipe calls for two pounds of “hamburger” (i.e., ground beef), Creamette brand elbow macaroni and canned peas.

1934: Campbell’s debuts its condensed creamed soups. Flavors like cream of mushroom, or “the Lutheran Binder” as it’s referred to in the Midwest, become the go-to hot dish base.

1953: When left with a surplus of scraps from frozen French fries, the brothers behind Ore-Ida potatoes, Nephi and Golden Grigg, grind the potato bits with spices, form nuggets and deep-fry them. Housewives across the Midwest begin to top hot dish with these Tater Tots.

1986: Garrison Keillor and Jean Redpath perform an ode to hot dish, “Tuna, the Food of My Soul,” on A Prairie Home Companion: “Only a small can of tuna; mushroom soup, celery and peas; mixed with a quart of egg noodles; sprinkled with chips and with cheese.”

1999: Minnesota author Pat Dennis releases Hotdish to Die For, a collection of short mysteries in which hot dish is the weapon of choice. Some titles include “Death by Idaho” and “The Lutheran Who Lusted.”

Food & Wine: Root-Vegetable Hot Dish with Parsnip Puree

© Eliesa Johnson

Anatomy of a Hot Dish

Protein: Ground beef, shredded chicken, canned tuna

Vegetable: Canned corn, canned green beans

Starch: Wild rice, macaroni, mashed potatoes

Sauce: Canned cream of anything soup: mushroom, celery, chicken, cheddar

Crispy Topping: Tater Tots, French’s French Fried Onions, chow mein noodles, crushed potato chips

Food & Wine: Hot Dish

© Eliesa Johnson

Taster's Notes

The crispy shallot topping on the root-vegetable hot dish is a game changer. It might even beat out Tater Tots!”—Karen London

Earthy, yummy mushrooms. The wild rice dish is a modern take on the church-lady classic. Chef Gavin was brave to tackle this dish!”—Pastor Monica Hammersten

Love the guilt-free creamed spinach! (It has to be healthy—there’s spinach in it.)” —June Kroog

I like the different root vegetables in the harissa-spiced cassoulet, but as an older person, I like my vegetables cooked more than is popular today.” —Jean Nederostek

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