Tonight’s Entertainment Is Tater Tots

Figuring out a potato-based mystery

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Food News:

  • Really loved this little history of Midwestern, women-hosted radio shows in the last century. They were often about food - always about the domestic sphere. The article overlaps with the the Home Economics episode I did with cookbook author Shauna Sever, which is one of my all-time favorites. Here’s a transcript if you’d rather read it.

Tonight’s Entertainment Is Tater Tots

By Ellen Scolnic

It’s month 6643 of apartment semi-quarantine and we’re so bored that my husband has called the Ore-Ida Tater Tots complaint line. That’s not so bad, you say. (Me eavesdropping breathlessly on the outcome of his phone call was pretty bad.)

David has been a fan of Tater Tots since they filled the middle section of his plastic school lunch tray many years ago. In fact, when the kindly Ore-Ida girl at the consumer hotline asked him how long he had been eating Tater Tots, it was one of those “scroll down” moments that make you realize just how old you really are.

“So you’ve been eating Tater Tots for 1-3 years?” the sweet girl asked.

“No,” my husband replied.

“3-7 years?” she guessed.

“I’ve been eating Tater Tots for probably 40 plus years,” David answered, cutting to the chase so the poor girl didn’t have to go through the 97 other choices.

So why would a fan of the crunchy, baked cousin of a French fry call the complaint line anyway? It wasn’t entirely a crank call. I had torn open a bag of Tater Tots and baked them as usual for almost 45 minutes until they turned golden brown. But when we sat down to enjoy them, David remarked how small each tot was. And I agreed. Almost as small as a penny. Tots are usually quarter-sized. We both were wary, because that’s a common switcheroo pulled on consumers these days. The bottle size shrinks, packages contain two fewer cookies, net weights are not a full pound. But the price of the item remains the same. Could Ore Ida be pulling this sort of freezer fraudulence? Then we both ate a tot and were further disappointed. It was like the old restaurant joke punchline, “The food is terrible and such small portions.” 

The tots were dried out. The headline on the outside of the package promised “golden exterior and fluffy inside.” These were not. There wasn’t any soft, mashed potato filling – only a very crunchy exterior with a dried out, hollow interior. Could our bag have expired? As a mom who used to urge her kids to eat the yogurt dated a month ago – “It’s yogurt. It already has bacteria in it! It’s fine, I swear!” -  it was possible that my bag of tots was old and freezer-burned.

Our millionth dinner at home started as a disappointment. The menu, because we’ve forgotten what a real meal looks like, was soup, leftover salad and random cheese hunks from the refrigerator bin. The tots were supposed to be the highlight. But not even a hearty dunk in ketchup could camouflage the slightly dusty taste of the Tots. 

That’s why we were so excited to call the Heinz Ore-Ida Consumer hotline and find out what was wrong.

After answering questions that included how long he has been a happy consumer of Tater Tots, where we purchased the offending bag, what was the number on the back of the bag, how much we paid and other details we couldn’t remember, the consumer complaint girl did some tapping on her computer. We were impressed with how seriously she was investigating our inquiry. We were lucky to have reached the Nancy Drew of frozen potato products. She looked a few things up, kept us waiting a few moments and reached a conclusion.

“You had a mis-packaged product,” she reported. We had inadvertently consumed “mini-tots” that had slipped in the wrong bag. Minis are smaller in size and don’t contain as much “soft potato filling.” Well, none at all, if you ask us. Evidently it was not a big enough factory fail to alarm the consumers. Nothing dangerous mixed in. No miscellaneous animal parts or plastic pieces got into the bag. Just small size tots instead of regular size. No need to issue a recall. No need to sue the company. 

After realizing that she was dealing with an “experienced” Tater Tot eater, the polite and sympathetic consumer hotline girl is snail-mailing my husband a paper coupon for a free bag of regular-sized Tater Tots. It should arrive in 10-18 days. 🥔

[To learn about the invention of Tater Tots (it’s a brand name!) listen to this episode and or this one, which is a live show from Portland, OR.]

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