Seventeen hotdishes took center stage on Saturday, Aug. 11, as cooks vied for the title of East Grand Forks Heritage Days hotdish contest winner.

When the 1½-hour tasting contest concluded, Ashley Kostel’s Shepherd’s Hotdish was declared winner by five local celebrity judges. Judges Pat Mars, of K-J108 Radio; Terry Dullum, former WDAZ-TV anchor; Steve Gander, East Grand Forks mayor; Molly Yeh, Food Network star; and Douglas Munski, UND geography professor, pronounced the hotdish a step above the rest.

The third-annual hotdish contest, held during East Grand Forks Heritage Days at Heritage Village, was one of the main attractions on Saturday, the third day of the four-day event. The third time was a charm for the hotdish contest, which multiplied 17-fold from last year’s single entry.

Hotdish, by definition, must contain a protein, a starch, a vegetable and “some soupy thing to hold it together,” said Yeh, who did some research on hotdishes when she moved from New York City to a farm near East Grand Forks.

“All hotdishes are casseroles, but not all casseroles are hotdishes,” Yeh told the crowd watching the contest.

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The judges said Kostel’s Shepherd’s Hotdish, which was decorated with parsley, was both tasty and attractive.

“It’s kind of a spin on shepherd’s pie” said Kostel, East Grand Forks. The hotdish included smoked beef brisket, mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables, she said. Kostel was awarded a 9-by-13 pan engraved with “Third Annual Hotdish Contest” for her first-place finish.

Harvest Hotdish, made by a competitor who left before the contest ended, placed second in the contest and Courtney Schell’s Ritzy Chicken Hotdish broke a three-way tie for third. It pushed the event into a five-minute overtime.

Yeh said she liked the inclusion of poppy seeds in the Ritzy Chicken Hotdish and the crunchiness and butter flavor of the crackers on its top, speculating they must have been brushed with butter or olive oil.

Schell, of East Grand Forks, didn’t divulge her secret to the tasty crackers. She did receive the Great Minnesota Hotdish cookbook for winning third place. The second-place prize was a platter decorated with a map of Minnesota that highlighted the state’s hotdish regions.

Judging the eclectic variety of hot dishes, which included Oriental Hot Dish, Scalloped Potatoes and Ham and Poor Man’s Dinner, wasn’t an easy task for the judges.

“They were all good,” Dullum said.

Besides the hotdish contest, Saturday’s Heritage Day activities included lefse-making demonstrations, wagon rides and broom-making demonstrations.

Broom-maker Wendell Landon showed children and adults how to make a broom, beginning with gathering the broomcorn stems from his collection of bunches.

“When you first start, your hands get sore,” he said.

Inside the vendors building nearby, Diane Monstrud was showing customers how to make lefse. A relatively novice lefse-maker, Monstrud said she learned to make it seven years ago because her family members who used to provide it for family gatherings are deceased.

"Nobody in our family made it anymore," she said.

Mostrud began experimenting with the Norwegian cooking craft seven years ago.

“I started out making lefse on a pancake griddle and many batches went in the garbage before I perfected it,” Monstrud said. “The more I made, the more I was determined to make more good lefse."

Her later attempts were so successful that last year she scored 48 out of 50 points at a lefse contest in Minot and won rave reviews from lefse cookbook author Gary Legwold, Monstrud said.

East Grand Forks Heritage Days opens at 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 11, with an ecumenical church service in the bandstand. Gates close at 4 p.m.