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Credit: Yifan Wu
personal essay

The Golden, Greasy, Glorious Power of Tater Tots in This Dumpster-Fire Year

updated Aug 20, 2020
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What does grief taste like?

I have food feelings. Not “feelings about food,” but of course I have a lot of those, too. What I mean is, over the years I’ve come to associate certain foods with feelings, and certain feelings with foods. Most of these associations are set, established, permanent. Happiness: Dad’s homemade pancakes on a Sunday morning, made in the special bowl that used to belong to my grandmother. Loneliness: High school cafeteria french fries, eaten while sitting by myself on a half-rotten wooden bench in my high school’s courtyard. Misery: Middle-of-the-night acid reflux, the result of eating too much garlic. (The real misery here is that my beloved garlic would do such a thing to me.)

And grief? I thought I knew.

Many years ago, when my grandmother died, the neighbors came over with casseroles. I was a freshman in high school, and hadn’t yet experienced the death of someone I was close to. I didn’t understand this ritual, but my mother explained that in times of mourning, you don’t think about cooking. It’s the job of the community to do that for you. Why? I asked. So you can mourn, she said.

Thus casseroles became a symbol of grief, and when I used to think about what grief tasted like the answer was canned green beans, broccoli smothered beneath thick layers of cheddar cheese, cubed ham, and cream of mushroom soup. Thanksgiving casserole spreads became fraught, and every bite of green bean casserole took me back to my grandmother’s living room, with neighbors at the door.

And then the pandemic came along. Unprecedented times were met with an unprecedented shortage of potatoes, and an unprecedented string of medium-intensity disasters in my personal life. The life I thought I had, and was going to have, suddenly disappeared when within the span of a month I lost my house (sold by my landlord) and then my job (“laid off due to COVID-19”) and then the city I’d lived in for the past two years (too expensive). Standing in the frozen section at Target, a kerchief tied to my face, newly unemployed and adrift in a world I no longer understood, grief took on a new shape: slightly cylindrical, stuffed into a bulging bag, cold and primary-colored. 

The tater tot.

Who can say a single bad thing about tater tots? They’re delicious. Bite-sized. Beautifully golden, greasy, glorious. They pair wonderfully with a cheeseburger, or perhaps a hotdog, or really anything you’d cook on a grill and eat on a hot summer afternoon, surrounded by friends you can touch, and hug, and whose faces you can see unobscured. Like the casserole, tater tots have always felt like a “community” food — something special you cook up to share with others, something that just feels like it belongs at the center of a backyard cookout, not unlike the casserole at the center of Thanksgiving, or a busy kitchen filled with black-clad mourners holding each other for comfort.

Before the pandemic I had never invited tater tots into my shopping cart, or into my freezer at home, much less into my breakfast scrambles or veggie burritos. But this wasn’t the first time I’d had them. There was a time, long ago, in the dingy cafeteria of my little private Lutheran middle school, when tater tots ruled supreme, when they signalled the optimism and freedom of the childhood weekend, when a pile of golden tots heaped next to a cheeseburger meant joy. Tater Tot Friday was something everyone looked forward to all week with unbridled glee. It was the one meal of the week when everything on the menu was unabashedly “unhealthy,” and thus Tater Tot Friday felt downright rebellious. “I’m going to do so much awesome stuff this weekend,” I’d declare, stuffing my mouth full of tots drowned in ketchup, knowing full well I was going to spend twelve hours a day playing Sonic The Hedgehog. 

Standing in the frozen section at Target, a kerchief tied to my face, newly unemployed and adrift in a world I no longer understood, grief took on a new shape: slightly cylindrical, stuffed into a bulging bag, cold and primary-colored. 

This was the emotional weight I thought the tater tot would carry for the rest of my life. And in fact, way back in antiquity (six months ago), I thought a lot of things about “the rest of my life” that have since come crashing down, but none have been as transformational as my idea about what is appropriate to put in a breakfast burrito or a skillet hash. To hell with it! The world isn’t playing by my rules, so I’m gonna put tater tots in everything.

And yet, every time I have bitten into a tater tot during this pandemic, it has felt off. Wrong. Like I’m breaking some sort of rule, and the cookout police are about to kick down my door at any moment. Ah, that’s it. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong: I’m indulging in a community food without community. I close my eyes and pop a tater tot into my mouth, and when I open my eyes I expect to be surrounded by people I love, so close our shoulders touch, so close that we can throw our arms around each other as we say, “What a beautiful day! And what delicious potato delights!” And then I open my eyes, and I’m alone in my kitchen. Off. Wrong. 

It’s this disconnect, this completely new and strange and terrible feeling brought on by an actual pandemic, that has tied tater tots together with grief, maybe just for now, maybe forever. It seems nearly impossible that something that once meant fun and freedom has for me come to be a harbinger of global disaster.

What will it mean for future me, eating this comfort food at a bar with my friends while remembering the time in my life when I needed comfort the most? When I wipe the grease off my fingers, I’ll remember the slow, sad mornings spent packing up my house, and the agony of waiting for the first unemployment payment to come through, and the whiplash of losing my home, my city, and my community, but I’ll also remember the point in my life when everything changed, and the moment when I picked up the pieces and said, “Well, this sucks, but life goes on and I need something to eat with this burger.” 

It’s inevitable that tater tots will come to signify some sort of confusing mixture of all these things: joy and grief; optimism and, well, [gestures at 2020], this. Maybe that’s what grief is supposed to taste like, because it’s not some static thing. It changes as we do. And now the best I can do is let this comfort food do its job, and ease into the acceptance phase of grease and grief.

I have to believe that one day I will say “farewell for now!” to the stockpile of frozen tots in my freezer because I’m meeting my friends for brunch and I can’t keep them waiting. Community will return. We will all see each other again, and we will share a table again, and we will wait in gleeful anticipation as the kitchen does unspeakable, wonderful things to potatoes. Until then, I have to harness the optimism of Tater Tot Friday. And I have to take this moment to make this declaration: Next time I’m invited to a potluck, I’m taking a tater tot casserole. It will be salty, it will be greasy, it will be cheesy and indulgent and it will offer absolutely nothing in the way of nutrition, and for this I will apologize to no one.