Every eater is an opinionator, which is why Voracious is featuring a new column devoted to the food-based disagreements that might forever divide us if they weren't such great fodder for dinnertime conversations. Tabletop Wrestling is where our contributors will take up the food world's hornet's nests and sacred cows, with each side passionately argued by a writer who cares deeply about the topic. In this installment, Hanna Raskin and Mike Seely debate the merits of Tater Tots.
Down with tots!
At my left-leaning alma mater, where most of the students were reared on whole grains and soy, an off-campus coffeeshop appealed to collegiate rebellious instincts by putting Tang and Tater Tots on its take-out menu. On production nights, our newspaper staff ordered what seemed like dozens of plastic clamshells packed with the grease-ridden tots, rolled in a vinegary hot sauce. Even in an office where unwashed staffers took turns sleeping on a sweaty sofa, and the water cooler was filled with Old Milwaukee, I was sure the snack represented the apex of grossness.
I love the story of Tater Tots: When Neef Grigg needed something to do with Ore-Ida's extra spud slivers, he refashioned the scraps as Tater Tots. That's American ingenuity at its best, but I don't feel the need to eat Grigg's money-saving brainstorm. My problem with Tater Tots is they always seem to be too crunchy on the outside and too creamy on the inside, so all I taste is fuzzy-textured char and squish, with very little potato flavor. (Granted, someone, somewhere probably makes tots which could change my mind, but let's not waste time with the Platonic ideals of processed foods.)
There are lots of great fried ways to enjoy a potato: Home fries. French fries. Potato skins. Potato chips. But none of those preparations are as fragile as a Tater Tot, which would lose its distinctive cylindrical shape without plenty of oil to hold it together. While I'm not fundamentally opposed to recipes featuring baked tater tots, such as hotdish, I've rarely encountered a freestanding Tater Tot that wasn't a reservoir of nauseating grease - and I'm including fancy, chef-made tots in my tally.
Although I usually pride myself on my everyman's palate, I realize I'm way out of step with the rest of the country on this topic. Americans annually eat more than 3 billion Tater Tots, including those served at the coffee shop that served as my college newspaper's supplier. The cafe has reportedly gotten classy since I graduated, but every Thursday is now $2 tots and shots night. I'm amazed current students are still managing to put out a paper. HANNA RASKIN
Up with tots!
I'll tell you how those students still manage to put out a paper, Hanna: The tot is the perfect cushion for the shot. In fact, tater tots are the perfect complement to just about everything, without overpowering anything. They're the John Oates of sides.
Tater tots, like macaroni and cheese, have enjoyed something of a PBRish comeback in hipster food circles. Unlike macaroni and cheese, however, few kitchens have dared screw with the basic composition of the tot. It's as easy to eat now as it was when you were four, and just as satisfying.
In a sense, the tot functions as a psychological foil to a culture saturated with social media, transporting its consumer to a simpler time when he could shoot rubber bands at squirrels in his back yard for hours, without a care in the world. If Arby's were genuinely interested in serving good mood food, it would serve only tots. MIKE SEELY
Who's right? Who's wrong? Tell us where you stand on the all-important Tater Tot question.