The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Hot dish and healing

A lot of people have a favorite comfort food. Mine isn't flashy, but it's fabulous: hamburger and scalloped potato hot dish. It's good, old-fashioned pantry cooking from what's on hand — hamburger, potatoes and any "cream of ..." soup.

All the women in my mother's family made this with amazing consistency, though I still can't make it as my grandmother, great-aunts, aunts and mom did. It would be served after a long day of chores or for a large gathering of friends and relatives at a confirmation or graduation.

I grew up eating Grandma Sorum's version and own the Pyrex baking dishes she used. Every summer I spent time on her farm, and after picking weeds in her garden I'd watch her expertly and rapidly peel potatoes. Gnarled, arthritic hands slowed her down but didn't stop her.

Both my grandma and mom told me stories about Great-Aunt Nora, who repeatedly won the potato peeling contest at the county fair. According to them, competition was fierce. Norwegian Lutheran women in the community trained weeks before the competition, hoping to out-peel my great-aunt.

Fast forward to 2007 when I was caring for my husband, Aaron, who had been given little chance of surviving cancer. The multiple surgeries, hospital stays and chemotherapy took a toll on him that is all too familiar to most cancer patients. He lost his appetite and more than 80 pounds. Nothing I cooked appealed to him, so I became an expert at finding high-fat foods in the grocery store that would put meat on his bones. Nothing worked.

Nothing, that is, until my mom — who came from a long line of potato peeling champions — visited. She stayed two weeks and, as only a mom can do, cared for us: she cleaned, cooked and organized everything that had been chaotic and overwhelming into an oasis of peace, healing and love. And she made hot dish.

Meatballs and gravy, wild rice hot dish, turkey hot dish, hamburger hot dish, and hamburger and scalloped potato hot dish. Not surprisingly, Aaron loved and ate them all. My lifelong favorite became his new favorite. To ensure that the hot dish would pack on as many pounds as possible, my mom replaced the 2 percent milk with heavy cream. She made huge batches of everything and packed our freezer with serving-size containers.

Months later, when Aaron was feeling better and we seemed to be heading toward a miraculous recovery, we were still eating those frozen containers of love. When we pulled the last tub from the freezer, I think we both got a bit misty-eyed.

The potato peeling legacy of Lutheran women had done its job. The women in my family played a significant role in getting us through his cancer misadventure. When I asked my mom (who still makes this) for the recipe, she just rattled off the ingredients: ground beef, potatoes, onion, cream of mushroom soup, milk; bake at 350 degrees until done. Freezes well and can make in large quantities. 


Charles Freitag

Charles Freitag

Posted at 12:42 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/24/2012

What a great article about the "healing power" of "hot dish". Imagine the curiosity of this Baltimore-raised-and-bred guy who, upon beginning freshman year at St. Olaf, found it to be a staple of cafeteria lunches. For a German-heritage boy raised on seafood, steamed crabs and sauerbraten, my favorite was and still is tuna-noodle hot dish. A few years ago I got on the web and found a recipe -- similar to the hamburger one posted. Now the food at St. Olaf is gourmet and organic and eco-friendly, but once in a while I have a craving for hot dish to take me back to those days in Northfield.

Note: Charles Freitag edited this post at 12:43 pm on 7/24/2012.

Marilyn Miller

Marilyn Miller

Posted at 3:45 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/24/2012

I really enjoyed this article.  As I was reading it, the "hot dish" sounded so good and I was hoping that the writer would publish the recipe at the end.  I was disappointed when I read just the ingredients and not the specific amounts of each ingredient.  I know that many of the older cooks just added ingredients until they "looked right".  But could the lady who makes this give an approximation of the amount of each ingredient for those of us who can't make anything without following a detailed recipe? 


Katherine Harms

Katherine Harms

Posted at 4:55 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/24/2012

This lady cannot probably give us a recipe like you want. My grandmother made wonderful foods. My favorite was her white cake with boiled icing. When I asked her for a recipe she was dismayed. A recipe? She just knew how things looked when they were right. She made a cake while I watched, and I did my best to write it all down. Sadly, when I tried to replicate her work, I failed. The only way to make food like that is to cook like that. We, and I am one, who measure and calculate everything simply cannot make the food our ancestors made with their whole body and soul.
To cook that way, you must make a lot of failures before you ever get it right. In fact, you probably must learn at Mother's knee. I could not do that, because my mother was more nervous in the kitchen than I am. She could not teach me anything she did, because if I went into the kitchen while she was cooking I was summarily ejected. It wasn't hatred; it was fear.
I would love to cook like my grandmother did. I am learning to be less tense about the whole thing, and I do have a few dishes I can make without precise measurements, but I always sigh with relief when they work out, because I have no faith in me.

Paul & Mary Knapp

Paul & Mary Knapp

Posted at 6:44 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/24/2012

Foolish Alert!  Foolish Alert!  A Southern boy, trained to cook by the Army (U.S....;-) and retired from the Air National Guard has no business doing what I am about to do.  Marilyn, I have never lived in the part of the country you are probably discussing.  But I have a starting point for you.  You must please stop reading unless you promise not to hate me if this does not resemble your memory.  After all, none of us can cook like our parents and relatives did, no matter what part of the country we hail from.  Here goes:

...she just rattled off the ingredients: ground beef (1 pound cheap 65-75% fat, press into the bottom like a crust, perhaps?), potatoes (3-4 medium, washed and skins on, sliced thinly and layered on the meat, perhaps?), onion (1 medium, cut into rings and layered on the meat, perhaps?), cream of mushroom soup (1 standard can Campbells), milk (1/2 - 1 cup, depending on how moist you want the result); (remember seasonings, right?  Salt and pepper or, more modernly, garlic powder and pepper - to taste of course), bake at 350 degrees until done (until center potatoes are soft - 70 minutes or so ---- OR cover in plastic wrap and microwave 30 minutes...I know, sinful....  The milk or cream is to dilute the soup and add moisture to the result.  If you do not dilute the soup, this dish is dry, not bad in Texas...but perhaps not so good where you are.  Please remember you promised not to hate on the church website...;-)

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Embracing diversity