The Tots Can Stay: How Tater Tots Became America's Favorite Geometric Food

After months of lobbying, potato farmers convinced the government to allow tater tots to remain on school cafeteria menus.

Michelle Obama's crusade against childhood obesity achieved a milestone last week, when the FDA announced new regulations that will require school cafeterias to offer healthier food choices and dispense with canned fruits, 2-percent milk, and high-sugar juices. But children will continue to find one unhealthy food on their trays: After months of lobbying, potato farmers convinced the government to allow tater tots to remain on the menu, making the cylinders of potato goodness the stalwart of cafeteria junk food.

While Congress hammered out the new cafeteria food regulations, the potato industry continued to position their product as the unloved stepchild: “Despite the fact that Congress said the USDA could not limit potatoes in school lunches or breakfast, we still feel like the potato is being downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines,” Mark Szymanski, a spokesman for the National Potato Council, told The New York Times. “It seems the department still considers the potato a second-class vegetable.”

For many, the tater tot is worth defending. The audience felt the sting of those crushed tots in Napoleon Dynamite’s zippered pouch when the school bully kicked him in the eponymous 2004 movie. Always the underdog in the battle against french fries for potato supremacy, tots have come to represent childhood. Impossibly cylindrical, the fried nuggets have become one of our favorite snacks; Americans consume 70 million pounds every year.

Tater tots were born from a desire to be resourceful—Ore-Ida invented them in 1953 as a solution to an excess of leftover potato bits (the company still maintains a trademark on the name). The spud refuse is finely chopped, tossed with flour and seasoning, then extruded through metal holes just before they are sliced into the iconic inch-long cylindrical form. F. Nephi Grigg, the founder of Ore-Ida, introduced tater tots by hauling a 15-pound bag to the National Potato Convention. His invention was such a hit that the company came to control 25 percent of the frozen potato market in the 1950s, according to Fortune, and was forced to go public to acquire the financial backing needed to keep up with demand. Today, Ore-Ida accounts for nearly half of the American frozen-potato market.

When it comes to snack food, tots aren’t the only substance pressed into near-perfect geometric shapes. Our love of potato treats, especially, applies to many forms. They’re nowhere near as popular as Tater Tots, but frozen-food purveyor McCain produces Smiles: bundles of mashed potato encased in a crispy, breaded outer layer, formed into the shape of a smiley face. According to the company’s website, four Smiles is equivalent to a “1/2 cup credible vegetable serving.” A commercial for Smiles that aired in the United Kingdom shows a bizarre story about how the emotive snacks result from potatoes being caressed with a feather duster. “McCain potato smiles are made with real mashed potatoes — we just give them a tickle!”

Fast-food chain Bob Evans serves up its own version of called Smiley Face Potatoes, which were selected as the country’s worst side dish in a study by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding, authors of Eat This, Not That. With 524 calories and 31 grams of fat per serving, kids would be better off eating a sirloin steak.

While the Obama administration has taken a small step in improving the health of school children, food companies continue to press food into novelty shapes to appeal to children, a ploy in which the smiley face on a potato cake conceals excessive levels of saturated fats. At a time when chicken can be designed to resemble dinosaurs and cheese sold in the form of goldfish-shaped crackers, our relationship with food is inextricably linked to our eyes and the innocence projected by such friendly and familiar shapes. The more we shape, press, and mold edible material into food-like substances, the further we distance ourselves from the origin of food and its essential nutrients.

At my own high school, everyone pumped their fists when the daily announcement of the lunch menu included chicken rings, doughnut-shaped chicken nuggets. “There is no part of the chicken that’s shaped like a ring,” our government teacher would grumble before retuning to the blackboard. In our schools, geometry is best left to math class, not cafeteria trays.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Mr. T in DC

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