Mrs. Hagberg’s Potato and Hamburger Hot Dish

When we moved north of Hayward, Wisconsin, our home was a quarter mile from the Namekagon River. Until I was fourteen or fifteen, the bald eagles that nested along the river used to cruise by at treetop level looking for a trout dinner while I hunted those crafty fish hip-deep in the water. I loved those great birds with their white heads and yellow eyes.

But by the late 1950’s we almost never saw eagles along “our section” of the river. The nest in the old white pine on the Phipps Flowage was deserted, and reports of other deserted nests on the Chippewa Flowage and other area lakes were in the newspapers. There were still eagles in Wisconsin, but just not as many. It was illegal to kill eagles in the United States, but we assumed that violators were still shooting or poisoning them or that more were being killed by cars as the birds scavenged roadkill.

But then Silent Spring appeared in 1962. Within a few months, millions of Americans became aware of the dangers of the indiscriminate use of DDT and other insecticides and herbicides being sprayed on lawns, fields and forests. Scientists had known for several years that birds were especially vulnerable to such poisons. Eagles and ospreys were particularly threatened by DDT, which was concentrated in the food chain and interfered with their reproduction.

The evidence was buried in scientific papers, but Rachel Carson uncovered it and explained it to non-scientists. Millions of people like me began to wonder if it was a good idea to fog drive-in theaters, use a Flit Gun in the house or spray the forests and fields around us. She was attacked by the chemical companies who produced the pesticides and is still accused of writing “junk science” by people who simply refuse to trust scientific evidence.

The delaying tactics worked for eight years after Silent Spring was published, but in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1972 the use of DDT was banned in the United States. Since then eagle populations have steadily increased. It is illegal to kill eagles, but they were removed from the threatened and endangered list in 2007.

Legal or not, our neighbor Mrs. Hagberg would have killed an eagle one time. The Hagbergs lived along the river where I fished. When I was twelve years old, they hired me to mow their lawn. One day that summer, while Mrs. Hagberg was sweeping her back porch, an eagle grabbed her little black and white fox terrier. As the eagle tried to lift the dog off the ground, Mrs. Hagberg ran out the door with her broom. Seeing an angry white-haired housewife brandishing a weapon, the bird let go of the dog and escaped to hunt another day.

My mother kept a recipe for a simple casserole titled “Mrs. Hagberg’s Potato and Hamburger Hot Dish.” It tastes a lot like a boy scout hobo dinner without the carrots. When I told my sister Patsy about it, she guessed that it was a recipe from the Depression, a way to feed a family some meat and starch without spending much money. She might well be right, as most people who lived out of town then raised their own potatoes and onions and sometimes even cured and smoked their own bacon. And when bossy the cow got old….

If you like a rather bland dish (as some of my Scandinavian friends do), you should give this a try. Just make sure that the ketchup bottle is on the table.

INGREDIENTS:

1 large onion (3 inches in diameter)
2 lbs. potatoes
1 lb. lean hamburger
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2- 3/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 – 5 slices bacon
1 cup cold water

PROCEDURE:

Peel and slice the potatoes fairly thin. Peel and chop the onion medium. Preheat the oven to 375º and grease a three quart casserole.

Layer of a third of the potatoes and onions in the casserole and dot half of the hamburger by tablespoonfuls on top. Sprinkle a half teaspoon of salt over the layer and season with a generous grind of pepper. Repeat to make a second layer. Finish with the rest of the potatoes and onions, salt and pepper. Add the water. Cut the bacon into half inch pieces and layer them on top.

Bake covered about forty minutes. Remove the cover and bake another twenty minutes until the casserole is done. Serve with ketchup, a green vegetable, bread and salad.

This recipe makes eight very generous servings, but the leftovers taste just fine.

NOTES: The instructions for making this casserole are “sliced spuds, little gobs of hamburger about the size of quarter, quite a little salt and pepper, strip with bacon.” My guess is that Mom wrote down the recipe as Mrs. Hagberg told it to her. A lady who shared a recipe with me a few days ago said, “If you have been cooking for awhile, you know what I mean.” I try to provide a little more guidance, but I do know what she means.

Rachel Carson died of cancer on April 14, 1964, less than two years after the publication of Silent Spring. Thanks in part to her book, eagles once again fly over the Namekagon River and even hunt the Widespread at New Richmond. If you have not yet seen an eagle gliding twenty feet above the water in front of you, find a place to sit along a river. There’s a wonderful experience waiting for you.

Last Christmas our son gave me On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder, who lives in Grant, Minnesota. I just finished the book and highly recommend it. Now I am going to reread Silent Spring, this time in a hardcover I found at a Salvation Army store in Brainerd, Minnesota, just a few weeks ago.

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About Chuck Rang

Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, grew up near Hayward, lives in New Richmond, messing around in kitchens more than 60 years.
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2 Responses to Mrs. Hagberg’s Potato and Hamburger Hot Dish

  1. Steve Dzubay says:

    Another great column, as usual Chuck! Thank you for the great story-telling with your introduction and the courage to admit some might find this concoction a bit on the bland side! Keep up the great work.

  2. Didi says:

    I just love your stories!! When I was kid my Mum would fry hamburger with onions and big diced fresh potatoes. We called it hash…… and we ate it with ketchup!! Still make it today!

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