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Beloved hotdish

Moving from Elsewhere to the Upper Midwest has its share of pitfalls, not the least of which is nomenclatures used up here that are used nowhere else. Take the word “hotdish.”

Everyone knows what hotdish is, right?

Wrong. Not even Noah Webster knows because I just looked up the word in my heavy-duty Collegiate Webster's and I'm sorry to say it's not there. Hotdog? You bet! Hotpot? Yessir! But no hotdish or even hot dish.

I'm sorry, gentle reader, but hereby hangs a tale. Several years ago, two of my friends, Jack and Jill, found teaching jobs at my alma mater, Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire, after graduating from Bowling Green University. When I followed up to find out how they had settled in, Jill replied, “It's very nice. We've settled in a nice old home near the University and the Chippewa River. We both share an office, and the faculty seems to be very welcoming. But I'm afraid I made a terrible boo-boo. Last week a very nice lady dropped over from the hospitality committee and invited us to a picnic for new faculty members on the next Monday.”

“That seemed like a nice gesture….”

“But wait! That's not all! I accepted the invitation and I asked her if Jack and I could bring anything. And she replied, 'That's nice; hotdish would be fine.'” I told Jack that I figured it must be a steak fry and told him to go out to KMart and buy two of those cast aluminum steak plates with bamboo holders. So that's what we did and last night we went to Half Moon Park, but it wasn't a steak fry and we looked pretty stupid carrying our hot dishes and no hotdish.”

Despite the gaff, the couple managed to achieve tenure anyway.

I’m guessing “casserole” is too fancy a moniker for the likes of church ladies and Sunday School picnics and PTAs in the upper Midwest. Years after Jack and Jill's experience, I met an old Wisconsin associate at New York City's Algonquin Hotel who told me he was on his way next door to the Iroquois Hotel where there was a monthly meeting of newcomers from Minnesota who met to have a hotdish party. I guess they're lonesome for home. The Iroquois was very low rent and provided them a space to bring in three-bean salads, tuna and flat noodle concoctions, chow mein with a hint of soy, and of course, noodles with green beans and mushroom soup and crushed potato chips on top.

Don't get me wrong. I love hotdish, even if some snob wants to call it casserole. The one I really like is flat egg noodles, ground pork, and kernels of corn all topped with the piece de resistance, Campbell's mushroom soup.

A close second is chow mein hotdish: Ground pork and lots of celery and other stuff smothered in crispy fried noodles and LOTS of soy sauce, which reminds me, I must find my late stepmother's Our Savior's Lutheran Church cookbooks smudged and worn, but containing Mrs. Olaf Wivelstad's recipe for dried beef hotdish.

Perhaps the most splendiferous casserole I've ever eaten was at the home of Brenda Ueland of Minneapolis. A very high-class lady, an author, whose autobiography, “Me,” lives in the hearts of those of us who dined and wined at her elegant home in Kenwood, just above the old Guthrie Theatre.

Here's the recipe. Butter large casserole(!?). Coarsely grate 1 ½ pounds of provolone cheese. Spread across bottom of casserole to a loose depth of 1 inch. With your bejeweled index finger, form one dozen holes in the cheese, into which you fit one dozen large eggs. Over the eggs and cheese pour one pint of half and half. Sprinkle with garlic powder (not salt) and fresh chopped parsley. Bake in oven until eggs are set. Serve with a chilled white wine and crusty bread.

Brenda didn't call this concoction casserole or hotdish. She called it “oeufs Malateste” (Headache Eggs), explaining that the notorious Borgia family of Renaissance Florence fed this to their enemies as well as friends because it tasted so good that enemies would eat it even though they figured it might be poisoned. She added that back in the 40s when fellow novelist Sinclair Lewis was her neighbor in Kenwood, Brenda exclaimed “he adored this dish.” (Brenda was scheduled to play Hedda opposite Lewis's Lovberg in a production of Ibsen's “Hedda Gabler” at the Old Log Theatre, but that “fell through when Lewis’s 20year-old girlfriend turned up from New York.”

Buon Appetito! Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715426-9554.

BY DAVE WOOD

November 30, 2021