by Ellen Scolnic
Ellen’s essay appears in episode 42 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
It was sometime in 2021. I don’t remember the month because they all ran together. We were quarantined in our apartment, not talking to strangers, trying to avoid COVID.
Along with the rest of the country, we were unsure about what was risky germ behavior and what was OK. When we brought packages into the apartment, did we really have to wipe them down with a Lysol wipe – like we did once, then gave up because it was too hard? Should we leave our mail on the hall table for a week? A month? Should we get the mail at all?
For a few months, we didn’t even go to the supermarket. All those strangers. All that sneezing. All those germs. I tried ordering groceries online and it was fun at first. I made my online list, I clipped digital coupons and selected a time slot to pick up my order at the local supermarket. But the time slots were all full. I guess I could drive 20 minutes to another store.
Then when I picked up the order and saw they were out of orange juice and substituted Sunny-D, the junky, non-juice alternative. The yogurt was missing and the milk was a pint, not a quart. Then there was the time my request for “2 lbs brussels sprouts” arrived as “2 brussels sprouts.” Yes, two little cruciferous balls for two people. Night after night, I made dinner at home, because that’s what I’ve always done. Before Covid, when my kids were younger and at home, I made dinner for five every night. Our family is a big believer in everyone eating dinner together. Now my kids are grown and have their own homes, but I still make dinner for two most nights.
Covid quarantine made eating at home the sensible choice. No one was risking their life by going to a restaurant. Our only treat was the occasional carry-out pizza slipped in at high personal risk. Maybe that’s why our call to the Ore Ida Tater Tot complaint line was so memorable. I was so bored, I remember it well.
My husband, David, has been a fan of Tater Tots since they filled the middle section of his plastic school lunch tray many years ago. He’s a vegetarian, so he has happy memories of Friday school lunches – the day that a meatless alternative was offered and Tater Tots were the featured vegetable. In fact, that was the first question from the friendly Ore-Ida girl who answered the consumer hot-line phone.
“How long have you been eating Tater Tots?” she asked David. It was one of those “scroll down” moments that make you realize how old you really are.
“Have you been enjoying Tater Tots for 1-3 years?” the sweet girl asked, offering up the first possible response in her survey.
“Nooo,” my husband replied.
“3-7 years?” she guessed, scrolling down in the timeline of Tater Tot consumption.
“I’ve been eating Tater Tots for probably 40-plus years,” David answered, cutting to the chase so the poor girl didn’t have to go through the 97 other possible responses.
So why would a life-long fan of the crunchy, baked potato bites call the complaint line anyway? After a lifetime of enjoying the potato goodness of Tots, this current batch just wasn’t up to snuff. Yes, we were grumpy and hungry but it wasn’t completely a crank call. Something was wrong.
I had torn open the bag of Tots, dumped them on a cookie sheet, and slid them into a 400-degree oven. My oven is a “professional chef’s” oven that came with our apartment. It was probably bought at a going-out-of-business sale by the shady developer who renovated our building, but it gets hot! Like chef Gordon Ramsay yelling, “Cook it for shite’s sake!” hot. I’ve burned my hand, wrist, and parts of my arm on that oven hot. It should have been ideal for crisping up the Tots.
I checked on the Tots after half an hour and resisted taking them out of the oven, even though we were hungry. Better to let them bake – for almost 45 minutes until they turned golden brown. They looked delicious – and the kitchen smelled reassuringly of hot oil like a Mcdonald’s parking lot. But when we sat down to eat, David remarked how small each tot was. And I agreed. I’m not a connoisseur of the potato pieces like he is, but I agreed that they looked undersized. Almost as small as a penny. Tots are usually the size of a quarter. We both were wary because that’s a common switcheroo pulled on consumers these days. The bottle size shrinks, packages contain two fewer cookies, and net weights are not a full pound. But the price of the item remains the same. Could Ore Ida be pulling this sort of freezer fraudulence? Then we both tasted the tots and were really disappointed. It was like the old restaurant joke punchline, “The food is terrible and such small portions too.”
The tots were dried out. There was no potato interior. The tots seemed to be only a very crunchy exterior with a dried-out, hollow interior. The headline on the package promised “golden exterior and fluffy inside” and these did not deliver. There wasn’t any soft, mashed potato filling. Could our bag have expired? I’m a mom who used to urge her kids to eat the yogurt dated a month ago – “It’s yogurt. It already has bacteria in it! It’s fine, I swear!” – was it possible that my bag of tots was old and freezer-burned? Was that why the Tots tasted like stale toast?
But what about the size? Our millionth dinner at home was turning into another disappointment. After months of not being able to go to restaurants, I had made plenty of delicious home-cooked meals – mushroom chicken and broccolini, African peanut soup, and home-baked bread. But that night, I was tired of being quarantined, tired of cooking, and completely uninspired. Dinner was a can of tomato soup, soggy, over-dressed leftover salad, and random cheese hunks from the refrigerator bin. The freshly baked, hot, and crunchy tots were supposed to be the highlight. But not even a hearty dunk in ketchup could camouflage the slightly dusty, overly crunchy taste of this batch of Tots. We needed answers! We were compelled to call the Heinz Ore-Ida Consumer hotline and find out what was wrong.
After answering questions that included how long David has been a happy consumer of Tater Tots, where we purchased the offending bag, what was the number on the back of the bag, how much we paid, and other details we couldn’t remember, the consumer complaint girl did some tapping on her computer. We were impressed with how seriously she was investigating our inquiry. How much attention she was giving to our perplexing potato plight. We were lucky to have reached the Nancy Drew of frozen potato products. She looked a few things up, kept us waiting a few moments, and reached a conclusion.
“You had a mis-packaged product,” she reported. We had inadvertently consumed “mini-tots” that had been slipped into the wrong bag. Minis are smaller in size and don’t contain as much “soft potato filling.” Well, none at all, if you ask us. Evidently, it was not a big enough factory to fail to sound the alarm for consumers. Nothing dangerous mixed in. No miscellaneous allergic ingredients or plastic pieces got into the bag. Just small size tots instead of regular size. No need to issue a recall. No need to sue the company.
After realizing that she was dealing with an “experienced” Tater Tot eater, the polite and sympathetic consumer hotline girl had her answer. She is snail-mailing my husband a paper coupon for a free bag of regular-sized Tater Tots. It should arrive in 10-18 days.
Original artwork by Ashley Ioakimedes
About the Author
Ellen Scolnic has been an award-winning writer for more than 25 years. Her work appears in publications including Parents Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, Eater, and more. Ellen and her writing partner, Joyce Eisenberg, write, speak, blog, and tweet together as The Word Mavens. They’ve been dispensing their advice and opinions on everything from dealing with new technology to sneaking out of a party early for years. Together, they are the authors of the best-selling “Dictionary of Jewish Words,” and two other books. Connect with them at TheWordMavens.com