Hot dish: a Midwest delicacy that may be your next go-to munchies meal
Nothing screams Midwest more than hot dish. Composed of a mixture of ingredients in one baking dish or pan (typically using cream of mushroom soup as the base), the meal is a staple at potlucks, family dinners, and social affairs.
Hot dish is a frequent topic of conversation online, with many non-Midwesterns both curious and perplexed about the storied supper. And while it may not seem like standard munchie fare like a Philly taco or peanut butter and jelly burger, go ask my old roommate Nate about the time he got stoned and ate an entire pot of my mom’s signature goulash.
But what exactly is hot dish? Is it the same as a casserole? And why is it so popular in America’s heartland? As GreenState’s resident Midwestern representative, I’m here to set the record straight.
Hot Dish defined
A deep dive in Food and Wine magazine revealed that the first recorded mention of “hot dish” was in 1930 in Mankato, Minnesota. Published in the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook, the hot dish recipe called for ground beef, elbow macaroni, and peas. A few years later, cream of mushroom soup (aka the Lutheran binder) was added to the mix.
In 1953, tater tots entered the chat. The tiny golden hunks of ground potato debuted to great fanfare, and it wasn’t long before tots were being added to hot dishes across the Midwest.
But is it casserole?
The term hot dish itself is a tad contentious within the Midwest itself. People west of the Mississippi refer to any one-pot meal as hot dish, while folks on the east side use casserole as the preferred nomenclature.
I decided to look at popular Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens’ definitive book, The Midwest Survival Guide. If any text was going to cover this regional cuisine, I knew it would be this one.
According to Berens, a hot dish contains red meat, such as beef or venison while a casserole has chicken or tuna. He also contends that hot dish will have some sort of potato for its carb; casseroles must contain pasta or rice.
After putting the question on Facebook (the perfect place for this type of debate), I was met with many steadfast opinions. But most agreed with Berens: it’s all about the recipe itself.
Most people associate “hot dish” with the quintessential tater tot variety. Other one-pan meals are almost always considered casseroles. This includes the green bean casserole, often seen as a traditional Midwest side. Tuna noodle casseroles, which many people top with Lay’s potato chips or cornflakes, are another popular option.
The autumnal sweet potato casserole, which has a layer of marshmallow, is typically present on Thanksgiving despite the fact that literally no one likes it (no matter how big the after-dinner joint is). Midwesterners are just too passive-aggressive to make a change—they simply take a scoop to be polite and throw their paper plate in the trash face down so no one can see they avoided eating it. Thus, the cycle continues.
According to my friend Eric, a chef in Minneapolis, the word casserole comes from cassoulet, the provincial French dish of meat and beans. He was quick to point out that “many a Frenchman has told me it’s not a hot dish.”
The bottom line: the phrases hot dish and casserole are interchangeable, but there’s a third guest to the party we have yet to meet.
Goulash: a hot dish of its own
In my house, our standard hot dish was also called goulash. My mom would use both names frequently, but I always knew what she meant: a one-pot meal made with elbow macaroni, ground beef, onion, and a light sauce she made from stewed tomatoes and tomato paste.
Goulash originated in Hungary, but quickly spread throughout eastern Europe. With so many German settlers in Wisconsin, it makes sense that the dish is a staple of many Midwest families.
Back on my Facebook thread, everyone seemed to agree that any hot dish with a tomato base was goulash. If cream of mushroom or some other stock was used, it was likely casserole that could be called hot dish if you live in Minnesota or North Dakota.
In conclusion, any hot dish can be a casserole or goulash, while any casserole can be a hot dish—but not a goulash. But instead of doing the mental gymnastics required to understand the nuances of these classic Midwestern meals, why not just try them for yourself? Stoned or not, they’re sure to please.