Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

Tater Tot Nachos Are the Left Shark of Super Bowl 2016

Totchos, anyone? (Photo: Stephanie/flickr)

Since it first debuted 50 years ago this Sunday, the Super Bowl has become a hallowed all-American tradition. And while the original focus of Super Bowl was simply a celebration of brute strength, it has evolved into one of the culinary highlights of the year. Is it fine dining? No. But a Super Bowl buffet is one of America’s great proletariat pleasures. And as foodie fever has swept the nation, there’s one menu item that has been thrust to the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl party spread: the totcho.

The totcho is a glorious combination of the nacho and the Tater Tot. It’s one of the very, very few recipes that seems to have caught on via Pinterest that is 1) actually feasible and 2) actually delicious. The fusion of the two creates the perfect game day indulgence: extruded potato product, cheese sauce, perhaps some crumbled bacon or beans and salsa. And it requires a fork to eat–just pure elegance.

But how did this concoction come to be? Well, nachos are a food that restaurants all along the Mexico-U.S. border claim credit for, and they probably all genuinely believe they were the first to stick cheese-covered tortilla chips in the oven. But Tater Tots have a very specific origin story.

It all started here. (Photo: stu_spivack/Flickr)

In 1954, brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg, the founders of the Ore-Ida potato and onion company (the name was inspired by their location on the Oregon-Idaho border), were looking for a way to monetize the scraps of potatoes that were byproducts of the French fry-making process. They had been making frozen fries for a year or two by cutting potatoes into brick shapes, and then carving those potato bricks in uniform French fries. The outer parts of the potato were swept up and sold, at no net profit, to livestock farmers as cattle feed.

The solution they came upon: shred the potato scraps, add some spices, and send the mixture through the extruder, which is every processed food company’s favorite tool. F. Nephi, the more showman-like of the two brothers (he wrote pamphlets calling potatoes the most healthful food on the planet and “worth more than gold”) brought them to a food show in Miami, where Tater Tots brought the house down.

And yes, Tater Tots are a trademarked name; other terms for them include “potato crunchies,” “spud puppies,” and “potato gems.”

Whatever the name, the potato nuggets remain a hugely popular snack food, even in our low-carb era. The company (now owned by Heinz) even had a 60th-anniversary celebration for them in 2014. But the totcho revolution began bubbling up a few years before that.

Fancy totchos with charred-tomato salsa, chorizo, and pickled jalapeños (Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt) 

“I honestly can’t remember where I first heard about them. I know they were an internet phenomenon in late 2013 or so, but I couldn’t pinpoint where they started,” says J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab cookbook and column, who has created his own version of totchos. 

What we do know is that online recipe traders got the totchos idea first from bars in Washington and Oregon, where they’re a popular happy hour menu item—the divier the bar, the more likely they are to show up.

They were probably first invented in Portland, at a tavern called the Oaks Bottom Public House, and have proliferated across that city and Seattle, becoming more elaborate all the time, sometimes with fancier ingredients. (But don’t get any wild ideas—“cheese” sauce is a much better totcho topping than real, shredded cheese.)

Why eat plain tater tots when you could add bacon? (Photo: anokarina/Flickr)

This Northwestern obsession makes sense, given that Tater Tots are native to Oregon. And according to Google, most searches for “tater tots” originate in Washington state. But according to allrecipes.com, the people from coast to coast go especially wild for them in January. Preparing for the Super Bowl bacchanal, no doubt.

Though they’ll never be the ultimate finger food—“tortilla chips are just a much better shape for delivering toppings. Totchos you really have to eat with a fork,” says Lopez-Alt—they are rocketing to the top of our most-desired game day snacks. Lopez-Alt continues, “But totchos are great for those occasions when you really want to indulge your inner fat kid.”

And really, except for the 92 men dressed to play, isn’t that what the whole country is doing on Super Bowl Sunday?

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our weekly email.