Friday, April 18, 2008

Deconstructing Hotdish

As kottke says, tater tot hotdish is the Cadillac of hotdishes. You may never have experienced its exhilirating taste and texture. Perhaps you've never been to a church potluck; perhaps your mother didn't love you enough to prepare it for you; perhaps you grew up chained to a rock in a cave, watching the silhouettes of tater tot hotdish dance against the back wall of your prison. Whatever your reason, you have my sympathy.

I, of course, grew up with the healthy glow of hotdish all around me. For many years I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that not all are so privileged. In fact, it turns out that hotdish is a phenomenon with extremely limited geographic distribution. Tater tot hotdish is so rare a delicacy that its Wikipedia article has gone down the memory hole in the last month. Some outsiders who encounter tater tot hotdish have been known to express confusion or even disgust. As my (outsider) wife has said, "I don't expect to see tater tots outside a school cafeteria."

My perspective on tater tot hotdish is radically different now than it was at say, age twelve. At age twelve, I could eat and enjoy the dish unself-consciously. I probably didn't think that everyone in the world had encountered it; but I certainly wasn't aware that it was distinct to my small Scandinavian-influenced context. Now, however, I eat hotdish conscious of its uniqueness. Now it isn't just food: it's The Food of My People. I eat it self-consciously, as a marker of identity.

And in fact, I can only eat it self-consciously. Becoming aware of the uniqueness of hotdish has forever altered the meaning of this food. I can never return to my naive mental state. I have seen hotdish through the eyes of outsiders. Now hotdish is a social construct.

I'll bet you can think of something like this in your own life. Start with something you like that you read about on Stuff White People Like. You still enjoy it, but know you watch yourself enjoying it, thinking, "I am so white."

Which brings us belatedly, and weakly, to Fish. My unscholarly summary of his argument is that deconstruction didn't really change anything--or at least, it shouldn't have changed anything. According to Fish, identifying something as a social construct can't be used as an argument against it (even though that is precisely what deconstructionism is often used for). But even if he's right (I don't know that he is), deconstruction does change things. It fundamentally alters the meaning of a cultural event or object.

Or does it? You tell me.


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Pirate Jimmy said...

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Beau said...

The social construct hotdish of record in my MN home was something called "hamburger casserole." An unhappy name for an unhappy dish. There was a lot of cream of mushroom mixed with various boxes of noodles and ground beef in those days. My heart still sinks at the thought of that pale brown goop being spooned onto the plate. My poor long-suffering mother. We gave her such grief those nights . . .

Pirate Jimmy said...

I remember a particular hamburger hotdish that my mom and grandma used to make all the time, we called it "helgeson hash," very similar to your dish except it was always rice, no other noodles. haha, I still like that stuff :-) I haven't had it in a LONG long while though!! I should visit my mom for some of that one of these days, haha!