At my day job, the reactions I get from readers typically fall into three categories.
1. You wrote something nice about my favorite college team. The next time you’re in [insert college town], I’m going to buy you a beer.
2. You wrote something mean about my team. You should be rolled in honey and staked to an anthill.
3. Aren’t you the Sweet Tea Guy?
If they read long enough, members of the first group eventually become members of the second group. (Yet rarely do members of the second group become members of the first group.) The people in the third group, however, don’t care what I write about their favorite college team. And I love them for that.
They are the dedicated ones who attended the University of Florida sometime between September 1998 and December 1999, regularly picked up a copy of the Independent Florida Alligator on Thursdays and actually read the articles after finishing the crossword puzzle. Needless to say, this is a very select group. Those people know me as the author of one of the worst restaurant review columns in the history of food writing. The title – the same as the title of this blog – was an homage to the excellent Heaven is a Playground, a book written by former SI writer, current Chicago Sun-Times columnist and general all-around badass Rick Telander. (Rick, you probably don’t remember, but I apologized to you for this once in 2009. I’ll probably do it again the next time I see you.) The photo featured me gazing up at the sign outside a Chinese buffet. The sign advertised “All You Can Eat and Take Out.”
I could have been a stickler for grammar and tried to load up the trunk of my Toyota Corolla with every piece of sesame chicken in the place, but I was just happy for a few heaping plates of food and red Jell-o cubes for dessert. My tastes were simple then. Basically, I had only two criteria for my reviews. The portions had to be massive, and the restaurant had to serve sweet tea. Not that instant fountain swill. Not unsweet tea with sugar packets. Real, honest-to-God, brewed sweet tea. If you still can’t quite understand, educate yourself.
Even if the restaurant served huge portions, it automatically received a bad review if it didn’t serve at least satisfactory sweet tea. I grew up in a house in which a cup-and-a-half of sugar per gallon simply wasn’t enough. Two cups did the trick, though. If I had to break out a Sweet and Low packet – because any self-respecting sweet tea drinker knows real sugar doesn’t dissolve in cold tea – then the place got downgraded.
Much to my amazement, this schtick connected with more readers than I’d ever dreamed. I wrote about taking a co-worker from Staten Island to a soul food restaurant and explaining why gravy comes in multiple colors. I challenged my readers to an eating contest, and one brave soul stepped forward and destroyed me, 15 plates of pork to 13, at the Sonny’s Bar-B-Q nearest my apartment.
The column gave me a level of campus fame I never would have achieved in my previous life as a walk-on offensive lineman or in my role as the Alligator’s sports editor. Dudes in bars recognized me. Once, a pretty girl in a bar recognized me. “Are you the Sweet Tea Guy?” she asked. I stood up straight and tall, and just like the guy in the Mike Krzyzewski commercial, proclaimed, “Yes I am.” She smiled. I prepared to ask her if she’d like to tag along for my upcoming review of the local pizza buffets. “My boyfriend,” she squealed, “absolutely loves you.”
Fortunately, another girl in Gainesville wasn’t so immune to my charms. She and I got married, and I grew into a semi-responsible adult-type-person. I got a job writing for SI.com, and I spend most days wrangling kids or writing about college football. But I still love to eat. I love barbecue. I love steak. I love pizza. Food is my second-favorite thing in the world. My favorite thing? Same as everyone else. But I probably love food more than you love that other thing. What can I say? I’m a passionate man.
I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to travel the country and spend someone else’s money on food. I’ve dined on whole-hog barbecue in a map-dot town in South Carolina hours before watching the No. 1 team in the nation get dethroned. I’ve eaten a half ground beef, half ground BACON burger hours before watching a team punch its ticket to the Final Four in Anaheim. Thus far, I’ve been content to photograph the food and post the image on Twitter for the salivating masses. Not anymore. For the past 12 years, I’ve wanted to bring back Heaven Is A Buffet. With football season approaching and a heavy travel schedule beckoning, I figured now would be the perfect time.
I love to eat. I love to write. So why not a side project in which I write about eating?
Don’t expect any foie gras criticism here. The great Alan Richman does that better than anyone over at GQ. While I enjoy a white tablecoth meal every once in a while, my tastes are simple. Give me ribs. Give me burgers. Give me a Hot Doughnuts Now sign shining like a beacon. I don’t care about ambience or presentation. I care about taste. The photo in this blog’s header is a slab of ribs from Archibald’s in Northport, Ala. They have six stools. If those are full, don’t even bother with the picnic tables, because the flies will swarm. They take only cash. They don’t serve sweet tea. Their ribs are so good that I don’t care.
I’m looking for more places like that. If you know of any, tell me about it in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter at @Andy_Staples.
Posting could be sporadic, because my paying job comes first. But I’ll do my best. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you come back. The reviews will begin soon. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.