Where Were You When Tater Tots Turned 60?

I normally have an excellent memory when it comes to birthdays, graduations and other special events that must be recognized via a card, a gift or, at the very least, a congratulatory Facebook post.

But I owe a sincere apology to H.J. Heinz Company, having completely blown off the anniversary of one of its signature and tastiest food items.

Tater Tots turned 60.

How did this happen? My only line of defense is that perhaps I never knew about the blessed event despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Chicago-based ad agency Cramer-Krasselt and Ore-Ida, makers of Tater Tots, announced it via a social media campaign, complete with a 60th anniversary sweepstakes. The winner, identified only as "Jackie D" from Winter Haven, Fla., received the strange sum of $4,500 "to throw a party," according to the contest rules. That amount would have easily covered my wife's surprise 50th birthday or my daughter's upcoming graduation party. Tots for everyone!

I still might be unaware that the crunchy, barrel-shaped potato puffs had achieved sexagenarian status had my wife not sent me to the grocery store recently to pick up a bag. My instructions were succinct: "We need Tater Tots." Like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, Tater Tots have obtained "must have" food staple status, for they complement any meal in spite of their less-than-nutritious makeup. (Twelve percent fat and 18 percent sodium in a nine-piece serving. But who can eat just nine?)

Longevity is surely another quality that Tater Tots possess, because the 32-ounce bag I plucked from the frozen food cooler was emblazoned with the 60th anniversary announcement. Never mind that it occurred last August. From the package, a mountain of tots stared back at me, one containing a crude looking face, nose and mouth, as if Ore-Ida had commissioned a pre-schooler for artistic design. The figure's arms held a balloon bouquet signifying that yes, something monumental had occurred. Clearly this was a big deal. And yet I was blind to the Tater Tots history ... one that, if I calculated correctly, began during the Eisenhower administration.

I grew up with Tater Tots; they were found in most lunchroom cafeterias, usually in white plastic bags soaked in oil. No matter. Greasy as they were, they were the perfect accompaniment to every school dish be it pizza, cheeseburgers or some unrecognizable concoction dreamed up by a nutrition consultant. In the latter case, they became the designated hitter of lunch, ably stepping in as the main course and performing admirably. Drenched in ketchup, coated in sour cream or eaten by hand straight from the white bag, they remained delicious. I longed to eat them in front of the nutrition consultant, just to watch her scream.

Tater Tots' tasty and nostalgic qualities were on full display during my 30-year high school reunion. The planning committee decided the evening's meal should include one item synonymous with high school -- two if you count beer. Tater Tots were the unanimous choice. While grownup foods like crab cakes and spanakopita netted meager interest from my classmates, now pushing 50, they eagerly gobbled up the tots, often before reaching the buffet line's end. It's yet another of Tater Tots' endearing qualities: their ability to be consumed before actually hitting the plate.

And let's not forget Tater Tots' magician-like abilities to appear ANYWHERE in food. I've seen them form the base of breakfast casseroles and vie for space with pepperoni on pizza. I've consumed them smashed in the middle of a grilled cheese sandwich or wrapped in bacon and skewered with toothpicks. A Google search for "Tater Tots recipes" even found them as the second uppermost ingredient on something called a 47-layer dip. Pickled okra lovers, sorry but your delicacy was the 14th layer, barely noticeable between hard boiled eggs and chicken nuggets.

So, Tater Tots, please accept my belated congratulations. Here's to 60 more years. And H.J. Heinz, please let me know when some of your other creations will be celebrating milestones so I can update my day planner.

Exactly how old are Bagel Bites?