With the Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers heating up and the series returning to Chicago tied at two games apiece, it’s only natural that as a reporter, my thoughts turn to one thing.
The pregame meal at the United Center.
A word first, about pressroom food. It’s usually bad. Of course, sportswriters seldom if ever care about this because A.We’re not paying for it and B. Most of us have no discernible taste as evidenced by the wardrobes of the male of our species, which consists primarily of ill-fitting polo shirts given away at golf tournaments circa 1987.
I’ve seen sportswriters, without the slightest concern for personal safety, ingest the lunch leftovers as they’re leaving the press box at 1 a.m. I’m guessing even Rick Bayless wouldn’t touch his own concoctions unrefrigerated and congealed some 12 hours later, but not us!
I will say that for the most part, the food has gotten better over the years. When I covered a certain Southern NFL football team in the early 80s, we had two choices for lunch each game – hot dogs and cheese soup.
Now I personally won’t eat a hot dog that has not been boiled or grilled within the boundaries of the Greater Chicagoland area for the simple fact that all other hot dogs look and smell funny to me, and anyone that serves a hot dog with a choice of ketchup or brown mustard clearly doesn’t get it.
The hot dogs in that NFL press box were grayish and I’m not sure any mustard was offered. The other choice, the cheese soup, was, well, just that, I believe – some Kraft singles melted in a vat and called soup.
It was a scary scene.
When I covered the Bulls, we would all watch with great interest before games as assistant coach Tex Winter would go through the food line first because Tex absolutely loved press food (and no doubt, hospital food) and it was fun watching Phil Jackson and his assistant Johnny Bach make fun of him.
“Go ahead Tex,” they’d say pointing, “try that green stuff,” and then collapse in giggles.
It is often more fun guessing the origin of the pregame meal as it is covering the game itself.
One local team whose name I will not mention because they might not serve me again, often feed media members grilled cheese sandwiches that we’ve theorized were toasted in prison using Wonder Bread and an iron.
Which brings us to the Blackhawks.
I believe sonnets have been written about the Hawks’ press food. If not, they should be. The mere thought of it makes me want to cry because it’s like someone really cares about us.
Served on real plates with silverware and linen napkins, it’s the best-kept secret in sports and it really shouldn’t be.
My friend Bob, a sportswriter from Detroit who likes to eat a lot (likes to eat and likes to eat a lot), was coming to Chicago last year to cover the Hawks-Red Wings playoff series and I decided to do him a favor.
“Just thank me,” I told him in a preemptive phone call.
“What for?” he asked.
“Just listen, do as I say and don’t ask any questions,” I instructed.
I then proceeded to tell him that because I would not be there to direct him, he should bypass the regular basement press room meal, which tries but can’t compare, and go directly to the 300 level press box, where he would be met by waiters in uniform carving prime rib and roasted turkeys with soft fresh rolls and choice of horseradish; delectable side dishes that would include gourmet macaroni and cheese with lobster – lobster! – grilled vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes with skins included. Oh, and did I mention the shrimp cocktail, and the cheese and fruit trays?
Sure, the place lacks ambience as we all eat standing up at tall tables, some of us balancing our plates on garbage cans, but quibbling about that would be in horribly bad taste, and we eat leisurely and happily as if we’re real people in a real restaurant.
The rookies in the group will often hastily grab a Haagen-Daaz ice cream bar from a nearby cooler, clearly unaware of what is to come between the second and third periods. You can always tell who had ice cream because there is a discernible pause as they observe in awe when the desserts are wheeled in, inhaling deeply as they calculate the five-figure calorie counts they are about to ring up.
Then in comes the finale – fruit tarts and mini-éclairs and mocha mousse delights; a tray of giant freshly baked cookies with peanut butter cups and white chocolate chips under a heating lamp so that, god forbid, they should not lose their warmth; brownies and cheese cake and more cookies and cake – the supply constantly replenished, of course.
And then, last week, a sundae bar I’d like to have at my son’s bar mitzvah – with more than a dozen toppings including my personal favorite — giant malted milk balls.
Bloated and semi-nauseous, we stagger back to the game, fighting off unconsciousness despite the thundering roar of the United Center crowd, and contemplate our sins.
On the night of the game last year for which I prepped my friend Bob, my phone rang.
“Don’t yell at me,” he said.
He then started whimpering about how all the writers he was with from Detroit told him that the basement employee cafeteria was the place they were supposed to eat, that they seemed like they knew, that he wasn’t thinking clearly, blah, blah, blah. I think he had a couple grilled cheese sandwiches.
He was now standing before the carving station, phone in hand, nearly in tears, because he knew he could never get it back.
To this day, he cannot speak of it. But I can. And as the Stanley Cup Finals capture the fascination of hockey fans around the country; as the series prepares for its most critical contest in the series; as my colleagues and I prepare to describe the splendor of competition at its very apex, I cannot help but focus on what brings us all there.
And hope against hope that they have the sundae bar again for Game 5.