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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Todd Blackledge's "Taste of the Town"

Older football fans remember Todd Blackledge as quarterback for Joe Paterno's 1982 national champion Penn State Nittany Lions, and perhaps as a five-year NFL signal caller with the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fans who are younger may know Blackledge as another ex-player turned broadcaster on ESPN and CBS. Some Indianapolis Colts fans also will remember him from their pre-season games.

But more often these days, the Canton, Ohio native is known as a foodie. Beginning during the 2007 college football season, working with ESPN producers, he launched "Todd's Taste of the Town," a segment about a local restaurant where that weekend's game was being played.

Mac's Drive-In in Clemson, S.C., was his "maiden-voyage segment." In addition to its cheeseburgers, Mac's is known for its menu of Low Country food.

Several months back, Blackledge launched a Taste of the Town web site as well as an active Twitter feed (His handle is @Todd Blackledge). He also has co-authored a new book with J.R. Rosenthal (who is working on a cook book with famous Texan Nolan Ryan).

Like similar books in the genre, "Taste of the Town (Center Street)" does a good job of taking you on a tour of places to eat in renowned college towns around the country. Because many of the games Blackledge calls are in the Southeastern Conference, nearly half of the book focuses on Dixie destinations such as Knoxville, Tenn., Auburn, Ala., Starkville, Miss., and Columbia, S.C.

But it also includes stops where other top-ranked teams play on Saturdays, including Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; and his beloved State College, Pa., home of Penn State.

Blackledge includes several interesting choices for barbecue in the book. For example, many outside the state of Alabama may be intrigued that he chose Archibald's over Dreamland in his section about Tuscaloosa, home of the Crimson Tide.

Archibald's was the first place he chose for an Alabama home game segment back in 2007. There, he met namesake George Archibald as he tended to the pit.

"It surprised some people that I opted for Archibald's instead of the better-known Dreamland Bar-B-Que. I'd had Dreamland ribs before and they are very good, but several reliable local food experts told me to check out a place across the river in a town called Northport," writes Blackledge, who goes on to tell how legendary coach Paul "Bear"Bryant preferred their sauce, which is similar to North Carolina vinegar-based sauce.

"I love that he took people to Archibald's, not simply because the barbecue is the finest in the state of Alabama, and perhaps anywhere," adds Wright Thompson, a senior writer at ESPN, in the book's introduction. "But because the act of attending a college game is often as much a pilgrimage as it is about being entertained, a trait sports share with food.

"You don't go to Archibald's as a prelude to an Alabama game. It is part of that game, as surely as a tailgate or long-held season tickets … In many places, you wouldn't dream of coming to town for football without also visiting a beloved restaurant," Thompson adds.

In my hometown of Bloomington, Ind., you could make a similar case for Nick's English Hut during college basketball season. There is a history book about Nick's, "The College of Beer."

Blackledge's book profiles about 10 barbecue joints, many of whom provided recipes. They include:

  • The Little Dooey in Starkville, home of the University of Arkansas, who gave their recipe for deep fried ribs and their corn pudding. 
  • Dead End BBQ in Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee. 
  • Byron's Smokehouse in Auburn, Ala. 
  • The Salt Lick in Austin, home of the University of Texas, which provided their brisket and chicken recipes. Be sure to check out the note from owner Scott Roberts about tradition on page 109.
  • B's Barbecue in Greenville, N.C., home of East Carolina University, where when they're out, they're out.

Weaver D's in Athens (Courtesy ESPN, photo by Bryan Jaroch)
A couple of notable soul food restaurants also make Blackledge's book, including Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods in Athens, Ga., a favorite hangout for the band REM. Owner Dexter Weaver came up with the slogan that inspired the title of a great album from 1992, "Automatic for the People."

In the back, a chapter of coaches' recipes is less useful (Couldn't University of Georgia Coach Mark Richt have come up with something better than "Hot Dog Delight"). But Sue Paterno's recipes for Salsa and Timbale are worth turning to.

They say the two most popular sports in the South are football and spring football. That should give you ample time and opportunities to visit these and other places in Blackledge's book.

Book reviewed:
Taste of the Town: A Guided Tour of College Football's Best Places to Eat
Todd Blackledge and J.R. Rosenthal
Center Street, 2013


  1. Food and sports -- can't go wrong with that pairing! Always great to get steered to some good local gems when you're in town for a game. (Altho grads tend to gravitate to their faves from school, I think -- as long as they're still around.That's why Dave and I seem to end up at the Trojan Horse about every other visit to Bloomington, I guess ...)

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