Most years, I don't pay professional football any attention until the last few games of the season. That wasn't always the case. Growing up in Louisville, my younger brother and I were rabid fans. Very curiously, we rooted for the San Francisco Forty Niners. They were extremely good, easy to like because they won buckets of games, but I think we also liked them because we liked San Francisco. We'd visited a few times. My brother and I had to do chores to earn television time in those days, and after turning over frost-glazed garden beds, emptying compost pails, and moving around boxes in the basement, we'd settle in front of a 300-pound television set with a small, low-definition screen to watch our gold-helmeted heroes do battle with rivals like the Giants and Cowboys. The Cowboys were, to me, the worst. Whenever the Niners played them, I felt, even then, like I was watching a culture war unfold -- albeit on a canvas of green grass and white chalk. Coach Jimmy Johnson looked like a slick hillbilly hustler. Their cheerleaders wore gaudy, unusually trashy get-ups. To me, at the time, Dallas epitomized sprawl, conservatism, and flash without class. I was too young and headstrong to take a more nuanced tack. It was Green Party v.s. hunting party, Alice Waters against brisket barbecue. In truth, Dallas had little to do with it. I was reacting on prejudices I harbored against my own home-state, hating the Cowboys because their stomping ground epitomized a bigger, grander, and more nefarious version of Kentucky culture.
Since my very late noughts and early teens, I have mellowed into more palatable state of fan-ship. Today, I avoid firm allegiances, at least with regard to football. I get a little excited late in the season and pick a good team with a compelling story begging for a happy ending. Last weekend, I watched the New Orleans Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings at a Chili's outpost in LAX as my girlfriend and I waited to catch a plane back to San Francisco. After Brett Favre threw his fatal interception, the three large Viking fans next to me -- I thought of them as pale blobs of butter-soaked lutefisk heaped on stools -- grumbled about a "Katrina curse." I smiled. I had been a Saints fan for about a month and a half. I suppose Katrina does have a lot to do with it. A Saints Super Bowl victory would mean a lot to New Orleans. My aunt, uncle, and cousins have lived there for two decades. They lost their house to the hurricane. New Orleans has problems beyond the debris, flooding, and disease that disaster brought upon its residents. Thankfully, food at least is not one.
From beignets, pralines, and chicory coffee, to crawfish boils, gumbo, and etouffee, New Orleans boasts a magnificent cuisine that reflects its French, Spanish, African, Italian, and Cajun influences. They run through the city's classic preparations like arteries; the end product is -- like the city -- both high and low, rich and frugal, bold and wildly delicious yet unhealthy, a little dangerous. I remember one New Orleans visit years ago, when I was around ten -- and Montana was, in my mind, still truly more Joe than state. We ate at a fish place, a frill-free joint with checkered tablecloths and wood-paneled walls. My tiny cousin was lurching around the room. He neared another table, and an old lady presiding over a huge steaming plate leaned down to slip him a fried chicken finger from her spread of eats. He crunched on it. I've never thought about New Orleans without recalling that moment.
I'm excited about the Super Bowl, not just because the game should be good, but because party hosts all over the country will have such a stellar culinary tradition to mine for inspiration. The kitchen table face-off on Sunday will be as interesting as the on-field action: on one side, offerings from one of America's most storied indigenous food cultures -- and on the other, perhaps a cornucopia of delicacies from a less-celebrated bastion of gastronomic excellence...