Tailgate food, the Martha way

I couldn’t say whether Martha Stewart actually likes football, yet each winter she dons a jersey, fires up the grill and leaves the patchouli candles inside. It’s an ambiance thing: The canonical Martha doesn’t inhale pork rinds or shotgun Pabst, but the game-day Martha sure does.

Her guide to hors d’oeuvres is an extended lesson in culinary class-consciousness — recommendations for black-tie holiday parties are pretentious, but her outdoor grilling balances the fine and the rough, like pig skins with Hamptons class. The sausages are duck, not pork, the peppers lightly grilled, not endlessly stewed, and the buns genuine Kaiser rolls. Yet her food exudes game-day soul — it’s the same players making similar moves but with sexier outfits. This is Yale’s gastronomic dilemma: classy or homey, refined or carnal?

The tailgaters at last weekend’s Yale-Princeton game displayed noble yet ultimately uninspired culinary vision. Stiles’ offerings were simple yet pleasing: foot-long hotdogs bathing in juice and nicely charred hamburgers, with accoutrements. Morse boosted the flavor quotient with grilled beef tips (perhaps tri-tip, perhaps sirloin) that kept my mouth busy for the better part of 15 minutes. Morse edges closer to an ideal balance of deliciousness and appropriateness, realizing that overly subtle or refined munchies feel out of place on a mud and booze-soaked field.

Although the beef by itself was scrumptious, it didn’t assault the senses as game food should. Perhaps a horseradish cream crust would have been appropriate, or maybe a gamier meet such as venison. Football grub demands an assertion of power.

Saybrook’s offerings were diverse but didn’t diverge from the Morse paradigm: baked beans, braised ribs, roast chicken and sausage with stewed peppers. These flavors are hearty and Etruscan: more forthright than French fruits-de-mer or boudin yet lacking the piquant ferocity of smoky barbecue. Here we approach the ideal balance yet still fall short by a common error: excess sugar. The beans aren’t particularly bean-like, the syrupy sauce diluting too much flavor. The ribs are braised, not smoked, and the sauce has less spice and vinegar than brown sugar and eggnog flavoring.

Barbecue nears game-day perfection, smoked over hard wood and sauced not with KC Masterpiece, the saccharin atrocity that obscures genuine flavor, but with a spicy vinegar-based sauce. The Chinese understand this fundamental tenant of savory food: acid draws forth flavor while sugar tends to conceal it. Why do children and picky eaters love sweets? They can’t handle the truth! Please now, this is football — put down the sugar and grab the real flavor, why dontcha?

This weekend, Harvard should learn from Yale’s pioneering efforts as they try to strike the appropriate tailgating chord. They’ll succeed if they remain true to their New England convictions while imitating the ferocity of Ivy League football.

A Mexican tailgate would likely seem trite and unoriginal if mild pico de gallo and unseasoned fajitas steal the show: We need spicy mole, vibrant menudo (spicy tripe soup), Yucatan fish tacos and the flavor-packed regional specialties that pair well with cold beer and man-talk.

Italian tailgaters should take a page from the North End playbook: pasta (preferably the midnight-black squid-ink variety) with chopped squid, garlic and olive oil. Forget marinara — red sauce is decidedly ’90s. Sexy olive oil sauces are in vogue.

The New England grub is central: Heartwarming clam chowder is a necessary and satisfying staple, but how about raw cherrystone clams on the half shell? Classy and down-home, non? I suppose raw seafood is awfully “pinky up” for football, so why not avoid the price problem by nabbing giant sea clams from your local fisherman? Commonly used as bluefish bait, the sea claim is nonetheless delicious and cheap. Don’t forget broiled scrod for some ol’ fashioned nostalgia.

Holiday wreaths and gingerbread houses aside, Martha is an expert social coordinator and culinary analyst. What she tells us about tailgating is valuable: as form follows function, so too does food follow festivity. Matching tastes with experiences, like pork rinds with an overtime touchdown, makes both a little better.

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