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Offbeat Oregon History

Iconic food items invented in Oregon

Continued From Last Week

The Tater Tot (1953)

As we turn our attention to what food historian Heather Arndt Anderson calls “Oregon’s prodigal spud,” we are straying into distinctly non-Christmassy territory. And yet, in the few dozen short years since brothers Golden and Neef Grigg invented it, the Tater Tot has become as much a part of American comfort food as the Velveeta-drenched macaroni noodle.

It all got started just after the Second World War when Golden and Neef rented a flash-freezing plant in Ontario (the town in Oregon, not the province in Canada). They were in the frozen vegetable business, specializing in sweet corn.

A few years later, their landlord went bankrupt, and the brothers bought the plant out of foreclosure and expanded their corn hustle into a full-blown frozen-foods company, planning to add frozen French fries to their offerings. Ontario being right on the Idaho border, the brothers — who lived on the Idaho side of the line — named their new company Ore-Ida.

By 1953 Ore-Ida was the biggest producer of frozen corn in the country. But the real money was in French fries. Another famous Idaho resident, J.R. Simplot, had figured out how to freeze potatoes without them turning black. Now the brothers wanted to use his system to create frozen, ready-to-cook fries; but this was turning out to be a bigger headache than they’d thought it would be.

The problem was when a potato was cut up into fries, they needed a way to get rid of the irregular pieces and cut-off ends. They were having a hard time coming up with a mechanical solution to this, and customers were not into buying a bag of French fries that was mostly half-inch-long slivers.

Then one day, a very confused salesman showed up to try to sell the brothers a prune-sorting machine. Of course, everyone got a good laugh when the salesman realized his error; but instead of hitting the road in search of the nearest actual fruit processor, he stuck around and visited for a bit. One thing led to another, and pretty soon the salesman was showing off his fruit sorter … and the brothers were thinking hard. The machine looked like it would, with the right modifications, do a pretty good job on potatoes as well.

To his probable surprise, when the salesman left the Griggs’ shop, he had an order in his pocket. And with the modifications the brothers had specified, it turned out to be just what they needed.

But now they had another problem — a good problem, but a problem nonetheless: Lots and lots of ends and bits of potatoes left over from the French fry-cutting process.

They started by feeding them to livestock. But the brothers hated this. There was nothing wrong with the potato bits they were getting; they were fit for human consumption. Feeding them to animals seemed like a waste.

So they tried a few things — ways to turn tiny chunks of potato into something people would want to eat. One of the first things they tried was chopping the potatoes up fine, compressing them into a long, thin log like a giant pepperoni stick, and cutting the stick into segments.

Very quickly they figured out that they were onto something big.

The Tater Tots had their table debut the following year when Golden and Neef brought a 15-pound bag of tots to the 1954 National Potato Convention. Neef persuaded the chef at the convention dinner to cook up the tots and serve a few of them on small saucers next to each diner’s plate.

“These were all gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag its tail,” Neef wrote, 35 years later.

The Corn Dog (1939)

On Labor Day in 1939, George Boyington, a Rockaway Beach entrepreneur who ran a hot dog stand downtown, was sitting in his kitchen glumly contemplating a huge pile of hot dog buns. The buns were too stale to sell; he had ordered too many, and now was going to have to throw them out.

Remember, this was 1939 — plastic bread bags would not be invented for almost 20 years. For Boyington, throwing a bag or two in the freezer was not an option; buns had to come in from the bakery the same day they went out wrapped around a hot dog. That meant he had to estimate how many he thought he’d need the day before, place the order, and hope for the best. And usually, he'd order more than he thought he’d need — it was better to have to feed a few stale buns to the seagulls than to turn away customers because he’d run out of them.

So he threw away a lot of buns. And it always bothered him.

As he moped there, glaring at the unsaleable pile, Boyington started thinking about how awesome it would be if he could make the bun and the hot dog at the same instant, just before handing it all over to the customer.

That’s when it hit him: He could do that! Just, it couldn’t be a bun. But what he could do, is dip a hot dog in batter the way you do a piece of fish for fish-and-chips, and deep fry it, on the spot.

Boyington went home and started experimenting with recipes. Soon he nailed down what he thought was the perfect blend of flavors and textures to complement a hot dog … and then he went into business, marketing Pronto Pup Batter Mix in stores nationwide. The mix was made in Portland, to which Boyington moved to be closer to distribution networks.

Very quickly it became clear that Boyington had invented something special. He trademarked the name “Pronto Pup” and launched his hot-dog stand business as a franchise.

Pronto Pups (the franchise stores) are still all over the country and are super popular in the Midwest. Pronto Pups (the brand of a corn dog) also have become synonymous with county and state fairs over the years, and are big crowd-pleasers at any kind of summer outdoor event.

You don’t see much of them during the holiday season, of course.

There is, by the way, a special Pronto Pup stand in Rockaway, “The Original Pronto Pup,” to commemorate the town’s role in the invention of the world’s most iconic state-fair fare. People who are fans of their corn dogs sometimes make pilgrimages, or at least make a point of stopping by on their Oregon Coast vacations.

(Sources: “The Fruit that Made Oregon Famous,” an article by Inara Verzemnieks published in April 16, 2007, issue of the Portland Oregonian; “The Tater Tot is American Ingenuity at its Finest,” an article by Kelsey McKinney published in Aug. 28, 2017, issue of Eater magazine; “How Two Oregon Brothers’ Efforts to Mitigate Food Waste Created the Tater Tot,” an article by Heather Arndt Anderson published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on Feb. 2, 2022; “A Classic American Concession was First Fried in Oregon,” an article by Meagan Cuthill published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on July 16, 2022)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Continued Next Week


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