Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: Atlanta

Georgia State vs Troy – Panthers prowl past the Trojans…

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably heard a familiar refrain by now about things in the college football world which are quick to draw my ire. Domed stadiums, for instance, are one such example. Their very existence is antithetical to a sport meant to be played and enjoyed in the elements. Under beautiful October skies, and brisk autumn winds. College games played in NFL stadiums are another such complaint. Sterile and cold, erected in the wasteland outskirts of town and crowned with garish luxury boxes, NFL venues lack the charm and heritage of their college brethren. Even big cities themselves diminish the college football experience. The jewels of the college sport aren’t surrounded by skyscrapers, and they aren’t to be found in places like New York and Chicago – places where a college football Saturday draws nary a wink from the average citizen. The true gems of the game are tidy college towns like Tuscaloosa, Athens, Madison and Norman. Places where Saturday’s are alive, the air electric, the entire town embroiled, consumed with the promise of a big matchup.

A trip to Georgia State then, which satisfies all three of the reviled criteria stated above, was a curious choice for me. Located in the heart of sprawling downtown Atlanta, they play all of their home games inside the antiseptic confines of the hulking Georgia Dome – primarily the home of the Atlanta Falcons. As if those three affronts weren’t enough, the Panthers have only fielded a football team since 2010 and Georgia State itself is a tight, urban, commuter school lacking a campus in the traditional sense. Located right next to the monolithic Georgia State Capitol building, the GSU grounds are vacant on a Saturday morning with the exception of a few wino’s milling about Hurt Park. Clearly, expectations had to be tempered for this particular visit.

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Before the game, I head over to the Krog Street Market, a hip, repurposed warehouse and former home of the Atlanta Stove Works, a cast iron stove and pan forge that closed up shop in 1988 after nearly 100 years in business. In 2014 those industrial bones were converted into a covered market for a handful of new hipster food shops. Browsing through the space, surrounded by exposed brick and heavy timber beams, an artisan chocolate maker offers me free samples of steaming hot chocolate from an outstretched recycled bamboo tray, a ruse to which I almost fall prey until I uncover the dirty truth: it’s vegan hot chocolate.  In other words, brown colored water.  Nearby, a few dozen bearded waifs wait in line for the craft beer store to open, key chains dangling from their belt loops, presumably lined up for some obscure, limited release, “sour beer” that tastes like a foot.

There’s a Chinese dumpling counter, an artisan charcuterie shop and a grass fed ice cream maker, among many others, all under the same roof. It’s a brilliant concept really, an incubator for food startups. Shared rents and lower barriers to entry make it much easier for anyone with a spatula and a dream to throw their toque into the ring, without the high risk gamble of a traditional stand-alone restaurant. Diners are the real winners, and for any foodie, the sheer craft and variety to be found in Krog Street Market is a dream come true. One could spend a month gorging in here without getting bored. Be warned, however, that the variety comes with a trade-off. The hipster influx here is palpable and the unkempt hordes of faux flannel wearing, mustache waxing, black rim bespectacled buffoons are nauseating.

Not nauseating enough, however, to deter my appetite for barbecue. I fold into line for Grand Champion BBQ, one of the stalwarts of the Atlanta barbecue scene since 2011. The small stand here is a satellite location for them, the proteins presumably shipped in from the main smokehouse in Roswell. Like any good joint, the ribs and brisket are still carved fresh, and the slicer delicately unwraps the black crusted delicacies from clear plastic as he attends to my order. Both the pork and beef offerings here are decent, but nothing extraordinary. It’s the delicious, yet standard and predictable barbecue that I have come to expect from a gas fired Southern Pride smoker. It always eats well but may not exactly deliver on “Grand Champion” level expectations.

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After lunch, I head straight to the Georgia Dome for the Panthers early afternoon kickoff against the Troy Trojans. Garage parking for ten dollars is the only option within a few blocks of the stadium, the entire area engulfed by the concrete expanse of the Georgia World Congress Center. I circle the dome briefly, and, far as I can see, tailgating is completely absent. No grills, no tents, no unruly students or tired jock jams emerging from loudspeakers. The only sound to be heard on a Saturday afternoon is the pinging of strings against a colonnade of aluminum poles, flags flapping in the breeze.

I bum a free ticket from a few ardent fans lined up at the entrance, loyally decked out in bright blue Panthers sweatshirts and hats. But inside, the Georgia Dome feels the same as any other dome – antiseptic, sterile. Only the first level is open for Georgia State Games, and less than half the concession stands roll up their aluminum grates for business. The atmosphere feels cold and empty, like having the entire building to oneself. Admirably, there are a few thousand passionate Georgia State fans in the building, cheering, screaming, and doing their damndest to give the Panthers a home field advantage. The best of what fandom should be. Despite their earnest effort, they are dwarfed by the cavernous confines, their voices faint and helpless in the vacuum, swallowed up within the belly of this concrete monster. I feel bad for them. Their fledgling program needs a more appropriate home.

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Despite the sparse crowd, the contest bears the hard fought passion of the college game. Helmets pop and echo louder in the giant space, and coaches can be heard on the sidelines audibly lecturing linemen about blocking assignments. On the field, the Panthers put on a good show. Quarterback Nick Arbuckle has a lively arm, and he tallies up 368 yards of passing while zipping a pair of touchdowns. His target du jour appears to be lumbering senior tight end Keith Rucker, who hauls in 10 catches for 154 yards during his final home game. Panther fans are treated to the team’s second straight victory, as the squad trots away with a serviceable 31-21 win.

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In the end, I’m not going to tell you that a trip to Georgia State is some hidden jewel just waiting to be discovered. Because it’s not. And even the most ardent of Panther fans would likely say the same. In fact, they may struggle to stay afloat in a market already dominated by a bevy of professional sports franchises, and a longstanding college football program in Georgia Tech.

But, there is hope on the horizon for the Panther program, and a stadium of their own to call home. They were recently selected as the winning bidder to take over the soon-to-be vacated Turner Field property nearby, former ballpark of the Atlanta Braves, and the cornerstone of a 300 million dollar redevelopment project for GSU. With over 50,000 enrolled students passing through the halls annually, this project, coupled with the sheer number of alumni, could lay the foundation for a sustained program in the future. When all of this comes to pass, I may just find myself in centerfield for a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new Panthers stadium sometime around 2020.

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Atlanta BBQ Battle: Heirloom Market vs Fox Bros…

Although a familiar refrain this season, only moments after touching down in Hartsfield Atlanta Airport, I am gleefully awaiting my order at one of the finer barbecue establishments in the city.  In what has become a thriving barbecue scene in Atlanta, Heirloom Market BBQ – with their unique brand of American and Korean BBQ fusion – has quickly asserted itself as one of the best in the city.  Tucked off the side of Interstate 285, I pull into the parking lot of a shady convenience store, the kind of place with bars on the windows and a rainbow assortment of bum wines.  A red vinyl banner hanging over a corner of the building announces Heirloom Market, the tiny joint tucked inside a small side building.

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My friend Katy greets me there, her tailored blue dress and matching pumps elegantly out of place among the usual rabble.  Although a staunch vegetarian, she graciously agreed to meet me here and give an appropriate evaluation of the rotating menu of crafted side dishes at Heirloom.  An avid chef and purveyor of Squash Blossom Kitchens, a local boutique catering company, Katy has a developed palette despite those dubious dietary restrictions. Squash Blossom Kitchens Website

I order up the “Texas Trinity” an appropriate name for my usual order of brisket, pork ribs and sausage, and an acknowledgment of the joints Texas roots.  We round out the order with some spicy mac & cheese, kimchi cole slaw and a cucumber radish salad.  Once our number is called, we retreat to one of the few, standing only, outdoor tables under the shade of a pop up tent.  Standing next to a few of their custom built, Southern Pride smokers, it’s an easy glimpse into the workhorses behind their reputed fare.

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True to its reputation, the barbecue here is excellent all the way around.  The brisket was heavily smoked with a pronounced smoke ring and well developed bark.  The only fault with the brisket is that it had dried out a bit, and some fresher slices probably would have been better.  The sausage was fair, while it’s house made (a move that I typically applaud), it had an overpowering sweetness that just didn’t agree with my palette.  Ribs, however, were expertly cooked with a deep pink color inside and pulled from the bone with a slight tug.  They had a delicately sweet profile with a touch of Korean influence, but the flavors worked perfectly.  These are first class ribs all the way around.  Even the hand crafted sides here have a nice attention to detail, the spicy mac and cheese in particular was completely ravaged.

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My appetite satiated, but not dead, I decided to squeeze in an epic BBQ doubleheader before the Georgia Tech game.  Fox Brothers BBQ with their Texas roots and one of the most decorated joints in Atlanta would be the perfect head to head comparison with the fare at Heirloom.  After a quick jaunt down the highway, I pull into the gravel parking lot and take a seat, jostling to make room for my second meal only 30 minutes later.

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Here, I order my typical brisket and pork rib combo, but after hearing legends about their wings, I toss an order in for some poultry to complete the trifecta.  Rounding out the order is a side of mac & cheese, as well as Brunswick Stew – an elusive southern bbq staple.  A few minutes later, the waitress sets the heaping platter in front of me, and I’m elbow deep in another couple pounds of meat.

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The brisket here is well cooked, and delightfully, they provide slices from the fattier point end of the brisket – always the more flavorful side of the cut.  While the protein is cooked appropriately with well rendered fat, the meat isn’t as smoky as I would have hoped for and could have benefited from a few more logs on the fire.  Baby Back ribs are cooked well, but a bit on the dry side, although the savory rub really accentuates the sweet flavor of the pork.  The wings, true to reputation, were sublime.  Perfectly crispy on the outside, and delectably smoky and pull apart tender on the inside, they really are about as good as chicken wings get.  Brunswick stew was hearty and delicious, and reminded me of a summer in North Carolina where I routinely ate it with a pile of ribs.  It’s a side dish I wish a few more Texas places would readily adopt.

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In the end, the Atlanta BBQ scene certainly impressed, their pork is expectedly top notch and they and had some of the better briskets I’ve found outside of the state of Texas.  Oddly enough, since both of these joints have Texas roots (both founders have ties to Texas) it’s no accident that they have risen to the top of the Atlanta BBQ heap.  If you forced me to choose one, I’d probably have to give the nod to Heirloom Market – their brisket has a better smoke profile, and the ribs are absolutely perfect.  But on a day when you get to eat BBQ twice in the span of an hour, everybody is a winner in my book….

Special thanks to my friend Katy for accompanying me on the BBQ trip, and a broader culinary tour of the thriving Atlanta food scene!

Full clickable gallery below:

 

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Georgia Tech vs Virginia Tech: Ramblin’ Wreck wrecked by the other Tech…

After an appalling Thursday afternoon of gluttony, chowing my way through some of the finer BBQ establishments in Atlanta, I head towards the Georgia Tech campus for a primetime night tilt against ACC foe Virginia Tech.  An urban campus located in the heart of downtown Atlanta, the school lacks the small town charm and sprawling lawns of more traditional southern campuses.  One of the most prestigious technical universities in the South, Georgia Tech is rife with accolades and highly accomplished alumni.  But I’m here for football, and with their unique brand of triple option offense, the Yellow Jackets are known for giving opposing defenses fits, and would be an interesting squad to witness first hand.   

I shoehorn my rental into a free parking spot on 5th Avenue and hoof if the mile towards campus.  Strolling towards the stadium, I stop in at Barnes & Noble which has taken over as the official university bookstore for Georgia Tech.   I’m there to meet up with my college football doppelganger – Taylor Mathis – in town to promote his new book.  A Wisconsin Badger alum and photographer by trade, Taylor has traveled extensively to some high profile college games across the country, and the list of places he has been nearly rivals mine.   Documenting the unique and colorful culinary traditions he’s found along the way, Taylor keeps a blog: http://taylortailgates.com/, which has manifested into an impressive book project. With hundreds of breathtaking photos of the various foods and tailgating traditions found at each school, Taylor has put together a cookbook featuring some of the finest recipes that he’s encountered on his travels.  It’s a must own for any college football fan, and the photos alone make it a mouth watering addition to your coffee table.

You can order his book here: Amazon Link

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Taylor and I chat for a few minutes about our shared travels before I head down to Tech Wood Avenue, one of the main approaches to Bobby Dodd Stadium. Frat parties line the streets and spill out onto the lawns, while a few RV’s have staked out spots in the parallel parking spaces.  For the guys, the uniform dujour appears to be a starched white oxford shirt, khaki pants and topsider shoes worn without socks.  The entire ensemble completed, of course, with a southern “swoop” haircut, delicately feathered over the forehead.  Girls wear open toe shoes and flimsy white dresses.  I, along with the entire male population of Atlanta, pray for rain…

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As I close in towards the stadium, the pomp and brass of entrance ceremonies can be heard in the distance.  Soon, the Georgia Tech band, led by the “Ramblin Wreck” – a 1930 Ford Model A Sport Coupe, marches down Bobby Dodd Avenue to enter the stadium.  A few cheerleaders hang off the running boards, and the driver lays on the old school “AAOOOGAHH” car horn.  As a “yellow jacket” would be a rather inconvenient live mascot, the Ramblin’ Wreck serves as the official mascot of the school and leads the football team into every home game.  While a mechanical mascot is an appropriate choice for a technical school, the Wreck is completely financed by the student Ramblin’ Reck Club, and receives no official university funding.  The driver is elected annually by the club, and with only 46 of them in history, the position is considered one of the most prestigious at the Institute.

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After the entrance ceremonies, I circle the stadium on the hunt for a ticket.  A few minutes later, strolling through the crowd with my index finger waving in the air, a guy walks up and hands me a free ticket from a handful in his grasp.  Before I can even get his name, he trots off into the crowd and disappears into the sea of white jammed onto Bobby Dodd Avenue.  Proof yet again for all my readers that game tickets should be the least of your concerns when heading out for a college football adventure.

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Entering historic Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Southwest side, one would be hard pressed to tell that this is the oldest stadium in College Football.  Some recent facelifts have given the interior fresh pours of concrete and sparkling aluminum hand rails that belie the true age of the historic structure.  Originally built in 1913, the stadium is actually celebrating its 100th anniversary this evening, at least according to my souvenir drink cup.  But the Virginia Tech Hokies will be a far cry from the first game at Grant Field on September 27th, 1913 against Fort McPherson.  A game that the Yellow Jackets won 19-0.

Although my free ticket is located on the second deck in Section 215, I squeeze into the white oxford masses of student section 19 to enjoy the game amongst my khaki wearing brethren.  With anticipation for kickoff building, students excitedly wave white pom pom shakers that have been taped to the bleachers as part of the historic evening.  But when the contest kicks off, Virginia Tech and their egregious stone pattern helmets, assume immediate control.  The Yellow Jackets, wearing pleasantly simple throwback uniforms, fumble on only their fourth play from scrimmage and the Hokies recover.  Two quick plays later, Virginia Tech finds the endzone and jumps out to a quick 7-0 lead.  Tech would continue their sloppy play throughout the first half, fumbling a couple of times and running headlong into the opposing Hokie defense to no avail.

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At halftime, Georgia Tech Football All Americans are honored at a midfield ceremony as part of the 100 year Anniversary, before the Ramblin’ Wreck leads the team back out of the tunnel.  In the second half, the Yellow Jacket offense finds a bit of rhythm, and their triple option reels off a 14 play, eight minute touchdown drive to close the score to 14-10.  But in the fourth frame, they sputter once again.  Stymied on a couple of drives by the well engineered Hokie defense, Ga Tech QB Vad Lee throws a critical interception with two minutes remaining to effectively end the game.  The Hokies escape with a 17-10 victory on the strength of their increasingly stout defense.

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While in the end, I certainly tend to favor the sprawling lawns, ample tailgating and open green spaces of more remote southern campuses, Georgia Tech is certainly an impressive and tradition laden program.  Given the extraordinary Atlanta food scene nearby, and a primetime ACC tilt against a premier division opponent, it’s definitely a place worth putting on your college football radar.

Thank you to my new friend Taylor, for taking a few minutes to chat.  It was great to finally meet you and best of luck on the new book!

Full Clickable Gallery Below

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