"I’ve missed my share of weddings, including some close friends, because they were dumb enough to have it during an Alabama game.”
Saturdays are sacred in the South—high holy days. No matter one’s team, we Southerners share a certain gemeinschaft albeit with limits.
While I may pray that Auburn/LSU/Ole Miss will fail, I still respect the heartache, loss, and anger that comes when that happens—“there but for the grace of God go I.” Bama may be up one week, and your team down. Next week, of course, it could be the reverse. Maybe…
Food—just barely—is the force that keeps us football-crazed Southerners from breaking the bonds of our better nature. It keeps our zeal from erupting into actual bloodshed. (This is not an exaggeration.)
Football in the South is very much a social interaction, even though it may consist of nothing more than two guys screaming at the TV about the terrible officiating or arguing with each other about whether the offensive coordinator should be fired.
As for the food on game day, there also are extremes. Some folks go all out: mounds of barbecue, plies of ribs, heaping plates of wings. Others, just a few bags of Golden Flake potato chips or a pepperoni pizza. Of course there’s alcohol. Beer and—depending on the time of day—“brown water.”
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Afternoon Game: A blessing and a curse.
A blessing because I don't need to stay up late watching football before a 16-mile, marathon-training long run. A curse because there is less time to prepare.
In case you don’t know, this is one of the fiercest rivalries in college football. Alabama and Tennessee have played each other every season since 1901. (By the way, Alabama leads the series 53–38–7.) It is as if the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy (Eps. IV-VI) were combined into one big epic battle of good vs. evil.
Yeah, I hear you Yankees snickering, calling it the “Redneck Bowl.” Looking down on your awkward American cousins and their strange fascination with college football.
Well….“Bless your heart.” (By the way, that’s not a term of endearment.)
On this particular Saturday in October, I brought my Brinkmann smoker out of hibernation, where it had been for the better part of the four years I lived in a downtown loft apartment. (You can’t really use a smoker in an alley.) The plan was to smoke a pork shoulder with homemade Eastern Carolina-style barbecue sauce, collards, and hoppin’ john.
The BBQ Sauce
Eastern N.C.-style barbecue sauce is nothing more than a simple mixture of vinegar and red pepper. But when I started simmering the sauce, I realized that the pork I had slaved over for the previous six hours—even pausing the game so I could run outside to the smoker—deserved more. My guests deserved more. So, I began to experiment. I got creative.
I knew that good BBQ sauce was a delicate balance of sweet and sour; sweet and savory; sweet and hot.
So I added: maple syrup, honey, molasses, ketchup (don’t judge), ancho chili powder, and salt and pepper.
I was deranged. I can’t recall the dimensions of the house I built, but it was good. I may have created cold fusion in my kitchen, combining Piedmont-style BBQ sauce with Easter N.C. BBQ sauce. A hybrid monster.
Collard greens are about as Southern as it gets, though not without some controversy—either loved or loathed. There are few late-in-life-converts to collards, though Laura may be one. After maybe the fifth serving I’ve cajoled her into eating, she admitted that maybe, just maybe, she likes collards, or at least mine.
After bringing to a boil and then changing out the water, I cooked the collards low and slow with a ham hock and some butter. My friend Jim completed the tableau with some cornbread. Two batches, one made with sugar and another without—always the diplomat.
Now let’s talk Hoppin’ John.
Hoppin' John is a simple dish of black-eyed peas, rice, chopped onion, sliced bacon, and seasoned with salt. You can also substitute ham hock, of which I’m a very big fan.
Traditionally, Hoppin’ John was eaten on New Year's Day in order to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year. We would need that luck for the big game with Tennessee.
A few weeks prior to the big game, I came across a recipe in a magazine with a Southern bent that put an Indian twist on the recipe. (Interestingly, Laura came across the exact same recipe at the same time, 700 miles away.) The recipe added such exotic, non-Southern flavors like cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cardamom, and turmeric. It was referred to as Biryani Hoppin’ John. It was good, but was it still “Hoppin’ John?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to fusion cooking, but I think it’s only fair to say that the son may not always resemble the father. I liked the biryani version of Hoppin’ John, even if I can’t really call it Hoppin’ John. Again, it was good, but maybe it deserves a new name. This is only fair. After all, Hoppin’ John is itself a White, new-world version of an old West-African dish no longer called by it’s long-forgotten West-African name.
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After dinner, I sat down to watch Nick Saban’s press conference, which is, in some respects, more entertaining than the game itself. Expecting the typical rant, I was surprised to find Saban… almost….Zen. The camera may have even caught a quick grin.
At this point, the smoked pork, collards, and Hoppin’ John had clearly kicked in, as my increasingly oscitant brain logged off late that Saturday night.
Yeah, so much for getting to bed early for my run the following Sunday morning.