Even before this winter turned into a never-ending series of snowstorms, Ashley Rieck had an idea to beat the winter blahs.

Late last year the events coordinator at Drekker Brewing Company turned to brewery co-founder Jesse Feigum and asked what he thought of a hotdish festival. His response was immediate.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said.

Rieck and Feigum knew they had a good idea: Invite a dozen cool eateries to serve up their take on comfort casseroles. They just didn’t know how good of an idea it was.

Today’s inaugural Hotdish Festival sold out in less than two weeks.

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So what makes hotdish such a hot ticket? Part of the appeal could be the cold weather.

“I eat hotdish year round, but I definitely crave it when it’s cold,” Rieck says.

Before moving to town from Sioux Falls, S.D., she and her friends started a group, Club Kickasserole, to judge each others’ hotdishes.

“It’s the maximum amount of comfort and the minimum amount of aesthetic appeal,” says recent hotdish disciple Molly Yeh.

A native of the Chicago area, Yeh moved to East Grand Forks, Minn., from New York a few years ago when her husband returned to the family farm. Her blogs about her experience led to the 2016 cookbook, “Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from An Unlikely Life on a Farm” and the Food Network show, “Girl Meets Farm,” which starts its third season on the Food Network on March 31.

While she’s one of three judges for today’s event — the other two being KFGO’s J.J. Gordon and Drekker’s resident foodie Tom Knowlton — Yeh didn’t even know what a hotdish was before coming to Minnesota.

“The first time I heard about it, I thought, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve had dishes that are hot. What’s the big deal?” She thought.

Molly Yeh holds her turkey hotdish in her kitchen in East Grand Forks, Minn. Photo by Chantell and Brett Quernemoen / Special to The Forum
Molly Yeh holds her turkey hotdish in her kitchen in East Grand Forks, Minn. Photo by Chantell and Brett Quernemoen / Special to The ForumPhoto by Chantell and Brett Quernemoen / Special to The Forum

One taste and she was hooked.

“It was a whole new world that opened up for me and so tasty,” she says.

She studied church cookbooks to learn the finer points of the favorite church basement fare.

One thing to know, she says, is that while “hotdish” may be the regional cuisine of the Upper Midwest and casserole may be what the rest of the country calls a meal prepared in a single baking dish, the two terms are not synonymous.

“All hotdishes are casseroles, but not all casseroles are hotdishes,” she states, matter of fact.

A hotdish has protein and a cream base, often a can of soup, and a starch, like tater tots, wild rice, potato chips or French fries, she says. Casseroles don’t have to have a protein.

For example, green bean casseroles don’t traditionally have a protein, so it’s not a hotdish, she says. Baked mac and cheese is a casserole. Scalloped potatoes is a casserole, unless it’s scalloped potatoes and ham, then it’s a hotdish — and infinitely better.

While casserole is a French term, the etymology of hotdish is a little less certain. According to the KSMQ documentary, “Hotdish: A Love Story” the term “hot dish” was first printed as the title of a recipe in the Grace Lutheran (Mankato) Lady’s Aid in 1930. That recipe called for hamburger, onions, tomato sauce and Creamette noodles to be baked together.

While the term is largely limited to use in the Upper Midwest, Yeh says there are versions of the meal in her ancestral Jewish and Chinese cultures.

One of the hirst hotdishes she ever made was Chinese and used coconut milk instead of dairy, which isn’t a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine. She topped it off with lo mein noodles to add a crunch.

Yeh has adapted the Minnesota favorite tater tot hotdish to be replaced with latkes, fried potato pancakes.

The kugel is a more traditional Jewish dish made with egg noodles or potatoes and while considered by some to be a hotdish, is questioned by others.

In the 2017 Minnesota Congressional Hotdish Competition, which has been a tradition since 2011, Rep. Keith Ellison drew criticism for entering his “Solidarity Kugel” into the friendly contest. He ultimately lost out to Rep. Collin Peterson’s “Right to Bear Arms Hotdish,” which included meat from a bear shot by a staffer.

For today’s Hotdish Festival, three-ounce samples will be served from Wurst Bier Hall, BernBaums, Blackbird Woodfire, Potato Brothers, BLVD, Boiler Room, Toasted Frog, Luna, Brew Restaurants, Sol Avenue Kitchen, Brygge Taps & Tastes and Blarney Stone.

Rieck won’t reveal who brought what, but says styles will range from Jewish to Swiss Alps. She did say no one used a can of cream of mushroom soup.

And ticketholders looking for a traditional tater tot hotdishes will come up empty as no one entered the standard variety.

While tater tot hotdish may be the baseline for the meal, there are certain restrictions to how it is made.

“One of the only things I ever learned from my husband in the kitchen is that a good tater tot hotdish has perfect tater tots lined up in perfect columns and rows,” she says. “You can’t just throw them on top.”

While different traditions may dictate how the dish is prepared, no matter how you slice it, it has to serve up comfort.

“Any (topping) has to get a little crunchy because the rest gets mushy and delicious and it’s something you can eat out of a bowl with a spoon while you’re sitting on the couch underneath a blanket,” Yeh says.

Drekker’s event may not have room for couches, but it’s BYOB (bring your own blanket).

If you go

What: Fargo Hotdish festival

When: 1 to 4 p.m., Sunday

Where: Drekker Brewing Company, 1666 1st Ave., N., Fargo

Info: Tickets are sold out. http://drekkerbrewing.com/