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...
Indiana, home of the Colts.
I'm not trying to be an asshole here. I grew up not far from Indianapolis. Kentuckians clown hard on Hoosiers. They toss around jokes about us, and we return the favor, touching on topics as diverse as their perpetually bare feet, their absurd dental shortcomings, and a statistically-proven propensity to commit incest and avoid using bathrooms. I will make no jokes about Midwestern food though -- mainly because there's nothing really to joke about. I'm doing the research, and while in this match-up, the deck appears stacked to favor The Big Easy, Indiana has a few tasty tricks up its dirty old sleeves. The Taggart Bakery Company of Indianapolis originally produced Wonder Bread. Van Camp's, the second-best-selling brand of pork-and-beans hails from the same city. Indiana is respected for its corn, both popped and otherwise prepared -- wrapped around hot dogs impaled on sticks, for starters. Lard-crusted sugar cream pies know many admirers, as does Amish-style fried chicken. In Indiana, chicken is only the paper-thin puffed-out outer crust of the fried food diaspora. State Fair food is huge here, and funnel cakes, cheese, and candy bars tumble gloriously into vats of oil alongside poultry and meat.
The state's greatest deep-fried achievement, at least that which enjoys the most notoriety (thanks in part to an indie documentary on the subject), is the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. A gigantic piece of pork is pounded until it is approximately a quarter-inch thick. It is breaded and then fried. It comes on a toasted hamburger bun, much smaller than the craggy sheet of fried swine, anointed with mustard and mayo, topped with lettuce, tomato slices, pickles, and onions. According to a legend popularized by Jane and Michael Stern, Jake Freienstein, brother to Nicholas, the Indiana man who supposedly invented the pork tenderloin sandwich, had lost his fingers to severe frostbite. He used his stumps to tenderize the pork slices, and apparently drove Nicholas's competitors to emulate his technique with hammers and mechanical devices.
On Sunday, even as I hope the Saints' defense manages to pound the Colts' star quarterback Peyton Manning (incidentally a New Orleans native who attended the school at which my aunt teaches) into the turf like a hapless hunk of pig, I'll be bringing an Indiana-style pork tenderloin sandwich to the party I attend. In a sense, it'll be fitting. I'll view my contribution as an effigy for the team the Saints must best. Just as I consume the sandwich, the Saints will devour their foe, and somewhere, far away, in a magical luxury box high above Lake Pontchartrain, Lil Wayne, John Goodman, Aaron Neville, and Paul Prudhomme will all clink glasses of Sazerac.