JEFF FITZGERALD was born in Kentucky to West Virginia hillbillies, and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He was educated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Jeff first started learning to cook at the age of six and his grandfather first fed him bacon grease of his fingertip when he was six months old. He still makes cornbread the way his father taught him, in a cast iron skillet that has been in nearly constant use for about 100 years.
From late August to early February, Southerners patronize football with a fervor nearing religious proportions. In fact, many churches in the South change the time of their worship services in the fall and winter so that the faithful don’t have to choose between either Daniel, or Aaron Rodgers, versus the Lions.
The first college football game ever played was in 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton. Four short years later, in 1873, the first college football game in the South was played between Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute. In those early days, football bore little resemblance to the game we know today. It was still more or less a hybrid of soccer and rugby, often featuring an indeterminate number of players on each side. But it was, perhaps then even more so, a rough-and-tumble game that appealed to the vigorous Southern nature. And even then, Southerners began to make the game their own. As early as 1875, it was actually made a rule in the South that a player was required to “haul off” before hitting somebody.
Football flourished in the South for decades, finally becoming an obsession and object of pride when Alabama beat Washington for the national championship in 1922. Until this time, the South had been viewed by the rest of the nation as America’s lazy, shiftless cousin who would have finished ninth grade if that shop teacher hadn’t been such a liar. Alabama’s triumph, particularly in a sport that the nation had come to view as a pure game for gentlemen, produced nothing less than a seismic shift in both the rest of the country’s perception of the South and in Southern self-esteem. Though we still had more than our share of troubles and embarrassments, and still do (1), we could finally sit at the grown-ups table.
And speaking of dinner tables, no activity in the South can be independent from our love of food. Every activity has its proscribed menu, from reunions to revivals. (2) The only difference between a birth and a funeral is whether you bring cake or a ham. Food is at the center of virtually everything we do, so it only stands to reason that football should be no different.
During the season, the party begins on Friday night, with high school games. Since the games are played “after work,” and high school parking lots aren’t known for encouraging anything that looks like a party, Friday nights are generally reserved for eating out either before or after the game. At the game, most concession stands serve snacky-type stuff, no more substantial than hot dogs and nachos. That said, a hot dog never tastes better than at a ball game. On a cool Autumn night at some small town school where the visitors’ bleachers sit on the baseball infield dirt, give me a couple of dogs wrapped in wax paper with a soggy bun with a Wiener of Many Meats, topped with irregularly-chopped onion and a dash of yellow mustard and I’m the happiest lad you’ll find. Add a flimsy paper cup full of Coca-Cola, and you have a rough approximation of my idea of Heaven.
Saturdays, of course, are reserved for college football, as anyone who lives within the purview of the Southeastern Conference can testify. (3) On game day, even in my little corner of Southwest Virginia, partisans can be found from the ground-shaking mass of humanity at Lane Stadium watching the (normally) top-rated Virginia Tech Hokies to the genteel step-back-in-time atmosphere at Wilson Field, the current home of Washington & Lee University, where the gentlemen wear ties and the ladies wear dresses and, until recently, both the home and visiting fans sat on the same bleachers.
Outside Lane Stadium, monied alumni lay out elaborate banquets alongside cash-strapped students grilling hamburgers and playing Frisbee. The food outside the stadium is almost always better than the food inside, owing both to the propensity of Southerners to produce copious amounts of food outdoors with little more than a heat source and a good excuse, and the Southern frugality that balks at paying $7 for a damned hot dog. The idea of tailgating, which likely goes back to the earliest days of football in the South as people traveled from great distances to see a game and brought their own comestibles with them, has been raised to high art.
While Southerners have long been deeply dedicated fans of high school and college football, pro football has been a relatively recent newcomer to our affections. Pro football in general didn’t achieve national prominence until the late Fifties, and most of the South didn’t really have regional teams until the late Sixties. Even then, major college games still outdrew the pros. For years, Atlanta Falcons games were for people who couldn’t get tickets to see Georgia Tech play. You could start a fistfight quicker in Louisiana by disparaging the LSU Tigers than you could talking smack about the Saints (Editors note: I really wouldn’t talk smack about either of them in Louisiana. Esquire ranked us one of the worst-dressed cities based on the Saints love following the Superbowl).
With the proliferation of both cable and color TV in the Seventies, Sunday game day started taking on a special prominence as a way to keep the party going. Pro football began to take on a national relevance as the great homogeneity of the Me Decade had its effect on everything from clothing (my father owned a leisure suit) to the proliferation of fast food that saw McDonald’s and the like opening in places where the previous idea of fast food was something that didn’t take all day to cook. Sunday football games, and soon Monday Night Football, gave Southerners both a new cause for celebration and a new type of cuisine.
Unlike concession stand hot dogs or outdoor tailgate spreads, TV football viewing found its own menu. Viewing games on TV called for more than just snacks, but not quite a full meal. Sandwich technology grew by leaps and bounds. Unused disco-era fondue sets were put to use for a variety of exotic new cheese-based dips. Chicken wings, heretofore enjoyed pan-fried or oven-roasted, were now being prepared Buffalo style, deep-fried and slathered in butter and hot sauce; virtually everything we love all in one thing. (4)
During football season, Game Day could now mean anything from Thursday to Monday.(5) It could mean anything from hot dogs purchased from a parent-run concession stand to hot dogs grilled by an inebriated undergrad to hot dogs cooked in the comfort of your own home. But no matter what level football you’re watching, no matter whether you’re home or at the game, no matter who your favorite team is, one thing still stands true: no ketchup on a hotdog.
1 I’m looking at you, Honey Boo Boo.
2 Both, coincidentally, involve fried chicken.
3 Loudly, and at length.
4 How this dish managed to be invented by Yankees is, to this day, beyond me.
5 Only because ESPN has yet to pony up enough dough to get Middle Tennessee State to play Idaho State on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Here’s a great tailgate recipe…