On a weekday afternoon at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, Calif., Andy Staples is eating an $11 bowl of chili made with beer-braised pork cheek, pork shoulder and pork belly. It’s topped with pickled onions and house-made pork rinds and served over cornbread. The menu describes it as “almost award-winning.”
“I was wondering why a chili would cost more than ten bucks,” Staples tells the waitress who’s come to check on us. “But then you got the big smile on your face when we ordered it, and I knew we were on the right track.”
The waitress laughs and walks away. “That’s the thing,” Staples says. “Ask the servers what’s good. If they say, ‘Everything’s good,’ leave.”
Staples is not in the food business. He’s a Florida-based Sports Illustrated senior writer who covers college football. He’s in Southern California to attend the Pac-12 media days and be a guest on the Jim Rome television show.
He’s also here to eat.
To readers, Staples’ appeal is equal parts food and football. He tweets about food daily, started a blog called “Heaven Is A Buffet” and works food references into his popular football columns on SI.com.
“It humanizes you,” Staples says of tweeting about food. “Instead of being that mean guy who wrote that negative story about their favorite team or their coach, readers see me as that guy who convinced them to have a J.D. Hoyt’s pork chop in Minneapolis.”
Talking about pork chops and pigskin follows a national trend of sports writers who use social media to get more mileage out of their meals and form a kinship with readers.
Last year, SB Nation video host and producer Dan Rubenstein launched the weekly web series Easy Call. For each show, Rubenstein visits a local New York City restaurant, talks football and eats sandwiches, pizza, tater tots or whatever food is being served.
A self-described picky eater growing up, Rubenstein began broadening his food horizons when he hosted the humorous SI Tour Guy video series on SI.com from 2007-08. For each episode, Rubenstein traveled to a different college campus and immersed himself in the tailgating culture.
“It was almost like what people do after college when they go backpacking across Europe and trying new things,” Rubenstein says. “Mine just happened to be domestic and eating at tailgates.”
Rubenstein ate gumbo in Baton Rouge and steak sandwiches in Lincoln, then fell in love with food when he moved to New York City three years ago. He’s paid to talk sports, not sustenance, but when he’s not working for SB Nation or co-hosting the Solid Verbal podcast, Rubenstein travels around the city, tries new restaurants and documents them on social media. You could gain ten pounds just looking through his Instagram feed.
“Football and food are in the same universe. They are not mutually exclusive things,” Rubenstein says. “It just made sense to move the show (Easy Call) in that direction because we knew it would translate well to the viewers.”
Staples agrees. “People respond to food because we all gotta eat,” he says, though some more than others. As an offensive lineman in high school, Staples ate everything that wasn’t nailed down—nearly bankrupting his parents on teaching salaries—and stayed hungry when he walked on the football team at the University of Florida. His voracity for vittles has never really subsided.
“My favorite thing to do is the same as your favorite thing to do,” Staples says with a wink. “Eating is my second favorite thing, but I love eating more than you love doing that other thing.”
In 2011, it led to Staples launching his independent food blog, where he wrote about his favorite dishes and restaurants in a manner one colleague described as “BBQ erotica.” He stopped writing the blog in 2012—he still contributes food stories for SI.com’s Extra Mustard section—and now has an eye toward channeling his efforts into a book instead. “Like a hitchhikers’ guide to college football,” Staples explains. “I’ve been lucky to experience a lot of delicious places. I just need to get up off my butt and do it.”
Food doesn’t currently pay the bills for Staples or Rubenstein, but it will for Longhorn Network producer Ande Wall, who will join the food website The Infatuation as its Austin writer when it launches in a few months.
“Getting paid to eat food and write about it? That’s pretty much the dream,” says Wall, who won’t give up her day job in sports. “I eat in my spare time anyway, so it’s a perfect marriage.”
Wall was exposed to different types of cuisine at a young age, as her father’s job as a basketball coach frequently took the family overseas. As an adult, Wall worked in the culinary wasteland of Bristol, Conn., as a producer of ESPN’s SportsNation, and became vegetarian for ethical reasons. Her meatless run ended shortly after she moved to Austin.
“I had just gotten back to Texas and was at my sister’s house for a cookout. My brother-in-law came in with these sick grass-fed beef hamburger patties just off the grill,” Wall recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Gimme a burger.’ God damn, it was the best burger I’ve ever had. I had meat drippings running down my face.”
Wall fully embraces all foods now, and her wedding last February featured two food trucks—one for burgers, one for tacos—at the reception and a rehearsal dinner at the famed Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Barbecue also is the subject Staples discusses the most with his readers and followers. Like college football, it’s a divisive topic, one that often leads to arguments about which state does it right or which restaurant serves it best.
“I call it barbecue xenophobia,” Staples says. “As long as it’s a dead animal, cooked slow and low, it’s barbecue.”
The food talk isn’t just limited to other people’s cooking. Staples enjoys manning the grill for gatherings—then tweeting pics—and has a family heirloom chocolate chip cookie recipe he credits for helping him land his future bride. Rubenstein is part of a group of NYC media-types who gather on fall Saturdays for a game-watch potluck, with a rotating theme. Some of the attendees include Paul Myerberg and Nicole Auerbach of USA Today and SB Nation’s Roger Sherman and Ryan Nanni, whose bacon cheddar doughnut holes were a favorite last season.
If this whole thing has a US Weekly “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” feel to it, well, that’s kinda the point. Most sports media members aren’t famous but they are in the public eye. Showing readers that there is a person behind the byline, microphone or camera is beneficial.
“I love when people ask me where to go, and they write back to tell me it was awesome. We weren’t always able to personally connect with readers like this. I like that,” Staples says. “It personalizes what we do. It shows that sometimes we think about other things besides football, and food is very high on that list.”