Ole Miss fans figured it out a long time ago. Good football teams and great quarterbacks come and go, but an excellent picnic spread in the Grove never disappoints.
The rest of us are catching on. Food is the new football. Me and my remote control used to live in ESPN Land. We hung out with Boomer, Matt, Tom, Dan, Sterling, Mike, Jimmy, and lantern-jawed Bill Cowher. We talked about Tom and Peyton and "length" and "athleticism" and the fine points of the nickel D. We lived for the play of the day and those lists of the 50 greatest of all time.
Something happened. My wife set the remote on Channel 69, miles and miles from ESPN Land, in a place called the Food Network. The superstars were perky Rachael Ray, blabby Paula Deen, gorgeous Giada De Laurentiis, spiky Guy Fieri, and Memphians Pat and Gina Neely. Every time I came home, the Barefoot Contessa was smiling at me and whipping up a tasty plate of something or other for her grateful slouch of a husband and, vicariously, for me and the wife.
Last weekend, we crossed the Rubicon, reached the tipping point, made the break. It helped that our favorite football teams, Michigan and Tennessee, recipients of our children and our treasure, lost and did it nearly simultaneously. Michigan's loss was especially painful, because it clearly won't be the last one this year and the weather in Ann Arbor was cold and rainy. Half the crowd in their maize-colored slickers looked like they would much rather have been warm and cozy inside somewhere eating a corned beef sandwich from the famous Zingerman's Deli.
As for us, we were pigging out on a tasty pork shoulder from Corky's and a side of homemade slaw, so the pain of defeat was, well, practically painless. At the party we went to that night, nobody was talking about UT's blocked field goals or Michigan's demise. Why would they when there was a dining-room table heaped with a spread of baked cheeses, cakes, sausages, and dips that would have made Martha proud? When the talk turned to movies, Where the Wild Things Are was widely panned but foodie-favorite Julie & Julia was still getting raves.
On Sunday, the lower channels were packed with pro football from noon to nearly midnight, but it was too pretty to stay inside and the Titans were off and, so far this year, awful. While the NFL was drumming up fans by playing a game in London, we were wondering what David Thornton, the executive chef at Miss Cordelia's, would do with a piece of Alaskan salmon we had given him to cook for three couples. He did not disappoint us, burying the salmon under a pile of apple salsa and resting it on a bed of parsnips. The man deserves his own cooking show, as do the estimable food bloggers for this and other publications. In the age of YouTube, they could instantly save us from the stultifying boredom of those political talking heads, preachers, and sales pitches in the television ghetto between Fox and ESPN where WKNO and WYPL deliver what passes for local programming.
On Monday Night Football, the Washington Redskins were featured despite their losing record. The Washington Post reported that morning that the Redskins are failing to sell out their stadium for the first time in years. They lost again, and the game reportedly was a bore.
But what a night it was on the Food Network! You should have seen the battle of the Dr. Seuss cakes in the form of Horton, the Grinch, and the Cat in the Hat. The suspense was unbearable when the Cat in the Hat cake had to go back into the kitchen for repairs — and under the 15-minute rule, no less! If they had dropped that sucker, it would have been all over. Talk about a clutch performance. It was better than the battle of the Iron Chefs.
An hour later, Guy Fieri was in Cleveland, where a grill cook was preparing smoked salmon BLTs and barbecue nachos. The artistry was amazing, the commentary superb, the photography almost pornographic in detail.
I was struck by a sudden desire for more salmon and, against all logic, a road trip to Cleveland.
Final score: Food, 4; Football, nothing.