It's not every day that you get to watch members of Congress battle it out over who can make the best hotdish. But for HOH, Wednesday was that glorious, calorie-laden day.
Senate Democrat Al Franken hosted the third annual Minnesota delegation "Hotdish Cook Off" in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Ex-Reps. Vin Weber, R-Minn., and Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., pulled bipartisan judging duty, sampling each of the nine featured dishes and ultimately weighing in on their favorite.
After great deliberation, House Democrat Tim Walz took top honors and earned bragging rights for his dish, dubbed "Hermann The German Hotdish" after a bobblehead statue of the Hermann Monument in New Ulm, Minn.
For his efforts, Walz took home the official golden casserole dish trophy emblazoned with the words: "Working together to improve the lives of Minnesotans – one hotdish at a time".
Also throwing their hats — or casserole dishes — in the ring were Senate Democrat Amy Klobuchar, House Republicans Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen, and House Democrats Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Rick Nolan and Collin C. Peterson.
Bringing Their A-Game
After surveying the spread of wildly diverse entries, Walz sounded a bit taken aback by the increasingly prop-heavy productions placed before him. "I'm telling you, look how this thing's evolved,” he told a colleague while sizing up the more-stylish-than-expected offerings.
"I didn't know we were allowed to use decorations," another competitor groused after spotting an entry flanked by Minnesota-based craft brews.
According to Franken, this year's recipes were "more sophisticated than ever," which, if their names were anything to go by, seems to be true.
"Hormel 'I Can't Believe It's Not SPAM' Pepperoni Pizza Hotdish" (Klobuchar), the "Real Deal Ranger Hotdish" (Nolan) and the "Beef, Beer and Biscuits Hotdish" (McCollum) were among some of the more adventurous monikers.
During the judging, Bachmann inquired of the panel: "How many bites do you take of each one?"
"It depends," Sikorski told her, digging into the "Willmar Stew" hotdish — later revealed to be Franken's concoction.
We assume the number of bites could be based on the edibility of each dish.
Not that everyone present raced to claim his/her fair share.
"Are you going to try any?" one staffer asked a somewhat queasy-looking buddy. “I had lunch already. And I'm trying to watch my figure,” the artful hotdish dodger fired back.
One excited participant had no illusions about the damage the late-day snacking would wreak on everyone’s diet. “They’re not good for you. But they are gooood,” the Senate aide assured HOH.
To add insult to potential injury, someone went ahead and also brought dessert.
If you were wondering how the judges pick which dish is the Minnesota nicest, there are three criteria: taste, texture and use of real Minnesota ingredients.
Despite coming in third, Ellison's dish, the "Juicy Lucy Hotdish" was a hit with congressional staffers and reporters and disappeared in minutes.
According to one of Walz's staffers, the secret ingredient in the winning hotdish was Schell's beer, made in New Ulm, Minn.
Franken, who has served a twist on his wild rice stuffing — a dish he said routinely graces his holiday dinner table — the past two years, decided to branch out with a heartier, protein-laden, pork-and-bean offering for today’s contest.
“It might have been too hot for that day,” Franken noted on an afternoon that the mercury shot up to an uncomfortably sticky 90 degrees.
In 2012, Franken and former Rep. Chip Cravaack tied for first place. Recipes for all the dishes are available here.
All In Good Fun
When a tater-tot-munching staffer suggested somehow roping Prairie Home Companion great Garrison Keillor into the mix for 2014, Franken nodded (his mouth full of one noodle dish or another) and thanked the attendee for the stunt casting suggestion.
“You’re just trying to blow this thing up,” he said of the potential stampede a Keillor sighting would cause around the Capitol.
The annual hotdish competition and his secret Santa duties — Franken has roped 60-plus Senate colleagues into exchanging cheap-o gifts for two years running — undoubtedly keep Franken pretty busy.
But the natural merrymaker in him sounds only too happy to oblige.
“Both of them have a lot of friendship and celebration,” Franken said of his biannual love fests. “You try to do anything you can to foster good will.”