Idaho's Signature Potato Dish Puts the 'Gem' in Gem State 

How Tater Tots ™ conquered America's small plates

The tots at Big Jud's in Boise consistently receive high marks.

Kelsey Hawes

The tots at Big Jud's in Boise consistently receive high marks.

All eyes have been on the potato for millennia. A dietary staple of South American peoples, the versatile tuber was introduced to Europe in the 16th century following the Spanish "conquest" (more like rape and pillage) of Peru. Since then, it has become one of the most widely consumed foodstuffs on the planet, ranked fourth in the world behind wheat, corn and rice.

Despite its moniker as the "potato state," Idaho didn't start cultivating the vegetable until the 1830s, with the influx of white missionaries into the region. However, as varieties of potato grew, so too did the Gem State's love affair with the spud. Today, about 300,000 acres of potatoes are harvested in Idaho per year, accounting for about 13 billion pounds worth an estimated $2.7 billion.

With that much history and variety, of course people would start experimenting with the potato, and the number of products and preparation styles for the spud are legion. Among the most beloved--beyond the fry--is the tot.

Enshrined in Idaho culture, the bite-sized potato nugget goes by many names in many places. According to the 2016 book Fries! An Illustrated Guide to the World's Favorite Food, by Boise Fry Company founder Blake Lingle, the tot's appellations include country hash browns, potato bites, Asian moonz, batter bites, Harvest Splendor bites, Old European potato pancakes, po' balls, puf-ettes, spud bites, spud puppies, tater bucks, tater gems, tater puffs, tater roundabouts, tater sticks, tri-taters and, of course, Tater Tots--the latter a registered trademark of Heinz Company, which owns tot originator and former Idaho-based firm Ore-Ida.

While it's highly likely that at some point, someone somewhere rolled shredded potatoes into balls and fried them up, it is to Ore-Ida that the glory is given for pioneering the Tater Tot.

As the story goes, company co-founder F. Nephi "Neef" Grigg was looking at piles of spud shavings cast off during the fry making process. Ever thrifty, Grigg had his workers dice up the leavings, mix them with flour and seasoning, and squeeze the goopy results through holes in a piece of plywood. The potato logs were then cut into cylindrical pieces and cooked.

That was in 1953, and Grigg apparently knew he'd struck on something fantastic. The trick was to get people to buy into the vision.

According to tot historians--yes, they exist--Grigg was not only thrifty and enterprising, he was also crafty. When the 1954 National Potato Convention came to the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach, he snuck in 15 pounds of tots and bribed the chef to prepare and serve them as an appetizer at the conference.

As Grigg later wrote, "They were gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail."

It's unclear how fast a dead cat can wag anything, but Grigg's meaning is understood. The tots were a hit but didn't go mainstream until 1956, after some pricing adjustments to make them more attractive to suburban consumers--according to market researchers at the time, Ore-Ida wasn't charging enough for the product, creating the impression tots were subpar. A bump in the price corresponded to a bump in sales.

Tots have remained an iconic part of the U.S. diet to this day. According to best estimates, Americans eat something like 3.6 billion tots--more than 70 million pounds--per year. The gems even have their own holiday, National Tater Tot Day, which is February 2.

Riding the success of the Tater Tot, Ore-Ida quickly grew to capture a quarter of the U.S. frozen potato market. Ore-Ida went public in 1961, and sales rose to more than $30 million by 1964. A year later, the Grigg brothers--Nephi and Golden--sold to Heinz, under whose leadership the company has nearly doubled its share of the frozen potato market.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Tater Tot, Heinz issued a paen to the product in 2014.

"From humble beginnings, the original Ore-Ida Tater Tots potato brand has retained its place at the dinner table as the one and only, the original that we all know and love, and that's something we're proud of," wrote company Vice President of Marketing Fred Arreola.

Though Heinz and Ore-Ida own the Tater Tot brand, there are plenty of other versions of the product out there and more recipes than would be productive to think about. Pizza Hut New Zealand in 2016 even embedded "hash bites" into its pizza crusts, which would either be really good or really, really bad.

No matter what you call them or how you prepare them--even if, like Napoleon Dynamite, you think its friggin' sweet to tote your tots in your pockets--when it comes to Idaho's premiere culinary contribution, it's best to consider one of Nephi Grigg's many pearls of wisdom: "Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it."

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