Today is an emotional watershed. It’s one of those moments when you realize you’ve been ignoring or taking for granted some beautiful thing in your life. For you, maybe it was the moment when your mom gets sick. You realize just how important she’s always been. Maybe you regret that you didn’t call her more often. Maybe you start to wonder whether or not you ever apologized for embarrassing her that one time at Chi-Chi’s. So now you’ve got work to do. You tell yourself she deserves better and always has. You tell yourself you’re going to be a better son to her. For her. You probably don’t admit to yourself that this is also about you. About needing to be a better son. Sure it’s about being a better son to her, but it’s also about wanting to feel like you’re a better son. Which is fine. And probably healthy.

Most emotional watersheds ARE about a mother, or father, spouse, partner, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, niece, nephew, etc. But not mine. Not this one anyway. Mine is about tater tot hotdish.

My niece and her husband drove up from West Lafayette to visit me this past weekend. Even though she’s twenty-four years old, I have to admit that I can’t remember having a single conversation with her beyond cursory small talk. This weekend we finally did. It was nice. It also pierced some neglected mineshaft of nostalgia for my childhood.

My closest friends know that I’ve always loved tater tot hotdish. That it reminded me of my childhood. That I took pride in letting it define me a little in their eyes. But the more I’ve been thinking about it this morning, the more I realize I have a lot of work to do to follow this neglected lode. Maybe it will just be a journey into the cavernous possibilities of an iconic Midwestern comfort dish. But I expect that I’ll find more. And so the exploring begins.

I plan to start by cooking the earliest childhood version I can remember. The one that took hold early in my psyche and hasn’t let go. I’ll eat it. I’ll write about it. And then start experimenting. I’m not even sure what it is I’m after. Mostly I just want to begin the journey. And make a better hotdish.

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