Get Your Game On 

"ESPN Gameday Gourmet is a cookbook aimed at football fans who are tired of just bringing a six-pack to the tailgate."

So food writer and native Louisianan Pableaux Johnson stakes out his turf in the introduction to his new book. But in talking with him, it's apparent that the book's appeal is broader, and its impact greater, than one might first think.

Johnson, who has written food articles for The New York Times and two restaurant guidebooks to New Orleans, came at this book more from a food angle than a football angle. "I did not speak the language of football," he says. "I just grew up in southern Louisiana as a big, hungry boy."

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But in Louisiana, everybody has a connection to Louisiana State University, and hence to LSU football games, and therefore to the ritualistic pre-game feast. Johnson, who is also a travel writer, says he always arrives in a new place and asks, "What do y'all got to eat?" So in that sense, the book is an exploration of America by way of its food traditions, from Duke Blue Devil Cheese and Bacon Dip to Union Bay Salmon from the University of Washington, where fans actually "stern-gate" on Lake Washington before games at Husky Stadium.

Along the way, there are some odd stops, like the (North Carolina State) Wolfpack Beer Can Chicken and (Wisconsin) Badger Orange Dip. But Gameday Gourmet, Johnson insists, isn't just a fat-and-grease tour.

"I'm a big fan, as a cook and a partygoer, of having a specialty," he says. "A specialty is a great place to start, not just for tailgating but also in the kitchen. What I want to do is show you how to take this technique, focus on the fundamentals, and get back into the kitchen."

Still, there is a lot of football in the book, which was published by ESPN Books; the word "gameday" ties in with ESPN's Saturday college football broadcasts, and several network luminaries contributed.

"It's a fantastic subculture," Johnson says. "Let's say you walk through a lot wearing enemy colors. Folks are gonna give you some grief, talk about the game, then feed you and put a beer in your hand. It's where generosity and rivalry come together."

To research the book, Johnson says he reached out to people all over the country, seeking "hereditary tailgate recipes." One of the goofier ones is "from a tiny-ass town in Wisconsin."

"My basic formula," Johnson says, "was to say, 'Dude, it's not a tailgate unless you have ... what?' And this friend in Wisconsin said, 'Orange Dip.' I said, 'Excuse me?' It's got cream cheese, French dressing, onions, salt, and ketchup; you serve it with pretzels. It sounds horrible, but after the first time I had it, I would have stabbed somebody in the hand to get at that stuff."

Such over-the-top reactions are common in a chat with Johnson — and also in any conversation with a Louisianan about food or football. He says, for example, that some dishes are routine at home but "take on transcendant powers" at the game. Of overlooked gameday foods like breakfast, he says, "When you show up at a tailgate with a cooler full of pre-wrapped breakfast tacos and a thermos of coffee, you're a minor god." He says you can learn to make proper biscuits for sausage sandwiches and "bask in the glory."

For that old classic, Velveeta-RoTel Dip, which Johnson calls a "gooey bowl of boisterous flavor," the book has two variations: the standard and the "beefed-up" version, which he calls "basically the love child of cheese dip and chili con carne."

"People trash-talk Velveeta Dip," he says, "but as soon as you taste it, you need a bag of chips. If we can improve on our childhood classics, I figure we're good to go."

The book is full of practical cooking advice; without coming right out and saying it, Johnson is appealing to the male ego that A) doesn't know a spatula from a spoon, and B) wants to impress people. "We wanted to concentrate on recipes with a really high success rate," he says.

He even casts his advice in football terms: Focus on the fundamentals, start with a strategy, develop a specialty, and practice, practice, practice.

"One of my core tenets is that you shouldn't be trying to put together your tailgate when you're standing in front of the beer cooler," Johnson says. "Any good tailgate starts in the kitchen, and that's where we want people to start."

Pableaux Johnson will sign copies of ESPN Gameday Gourmet on Tuesday, September 11th, starting at 6 p.m., at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 387 N. Perkins. Afterwards, the store's Brontë bistro will serve recipes from the book. He will also be cooking at Zoo Rendezvous 2007, whipping up some red beans and rice (for Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q) on Saturday, September 15th.

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