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What Is It With Tater Tots Anyway?

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Mar 6, 2013 7:20PM

We've never been a fan of tater tots. As a child, we would devour these fried golden mini-barreled tubers as often as we bloodied and scraped our knees — roughly biweekly — but they harbored approximately the same flavor quotient as our stock of band-aids.

To be fair, perhaps the sour, damp brine of the concomitant chicken fried steak compromised their robust texture. Or the stringent smell ensconcing our daily dollop of banana pudding neutralized their natural succulence. Or maybe, just maybe, tater tots have never been that good to begin with. So why are so many restaurants—from Trencherman to Bel 50 to Bub City—now serving them as a seeming delicacy?

Our first and best guess: garden-variety nostalgia. There’s no denying the temptation for those, including chefs, of certain years to gaze fondly back upon an Instagram-filtered yesteryear, particularly those formative hours when someone else commandeered the kitchen, apron strings, metaphorical or no, dangling like puppet wires for the pulling. And what could be more universal to all-American, apple-pie-in-the-sky childhoods everywhere than greasy hash brown cylinders looking like so many amputated finger tips? What clearer edible symbol of all that was once right with our 1989 world?

Not all atavisms are alike, however. Some make it; some don’t. We sold our synthesizer and have yet to see Gremlins 3 in theaters (alack!). Meanwhile in the culinary world, the farm-to-table movement, however hackneyed a phrase, represents a worthwhile return to days gone by, a sensible swinging of the pendulum, as such swinging should well be. But if you wish to revisit a relic of a bygone era, that relic ought to be worth revisiting. So we’re nixing stirrup pants and their parachute counterparts. We’re also holding suspect all food served us on a lunch tray by ladies with fleshy, rippling underarms. After all, we’re old enough to know and do better now. And we like our potatoes boiled, not fried, anyway.

Are we averse to tater tots per se? No, back in 1989 they offered a critical carbohydrate-rich foil to our gamey gray-green sliver of Salisbury steak. But we can live without both now, though some updating has clearly worked to the tots’ benefit. It's hard to argue with longevity (see mullet). Bel 50, for instance, suits up its golden nuggets with parmesan cheese and truffle sauce, and we’re not one to cavil with either—both easily render everything we pop inside our mouth (and we do much such popping) measurably better. Trencherman, meanwhile, prefers to pickle theirs before garnishing them with chicken breast bresaola, red onion yogurt, and scallions, while Bub City’s buffalo-sauced tots are laden with rich blue cheese. Yum. And no thank you.

In our opinion, these effete modern touches have served ye tater tots’ touted tottiness well. But all these years later, the raw material still fails to impress. We hate to invoke lipstick on a pig, but we’d much rather enjoy a homely pork chop than the choicest spread of dandified t-tots. And if at all possible, we’d prefer to continue our brisk gallop into the future without the taste of band-aids in our mouth.