Steve Harrell is methodical about each step that brings him to kickoff for a Saints home game inside the Louisiana Superdome. The veteran New Orleans police officer uses the same gate to enter the stadium each time, and, once inside the Dome, he follows the same route to reach his seat.
But Harrell's game-day ritual actually begins much earlier. In his kitchen at home, he carefully measures, bags and packs all the ingredients he'll need to prepare a feast of Creole soul flavors at his favorite spot outside the Dome.
"We always make enough for everyone," he says. "We don't care who comes by. Family, friends, strangers, they all get fed."
For each Saints home game, Harrell and a group of approximately 50 other law enforcement officers and their families produce this spread under the Claiborne Avenue overpass at Poydras Street, a spot within a stone's throw of the Dome. They're tailgating, but these parties go beyond just cooking before the game. Harrell, a nephew of the late New Orleans chef Austin Leslie, says when you devote a day to supporting your local team, you must begin with a serious dose of local food.
"It's New Orleans," he says. "Fans from other cities, they come by and they're like, 'What are you cooking over there?' They can't believe it. They cook hot dogs back home. We're out here making white beans, pasta-laya, gumbo, ribs. We do it up because that's the way we do it here."
Saints mania is on display everywhere around the New Orleans area these days, and it's making an imprint on the way locals eat as well. The melding of south Louisiana's perpetual passion for food and fans' seasonal passion for the Saints fosters some momentous game-day meals. It drives highly personal food rituals and inspires edible tributes to the home team. In some cases, it even changes the way restaurateurs do business during the season.
"Cheese crack," a lowbrow but addictive dip made from Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes, is a gooey good luck totem that must be on the table whenever software engineer Rob Schafer hosts a Saints-watching party at his Central City home. When Saints spirit moves him, Paul Arceneaux, a pesto maker and vendor at the Crescent City Farmers Market, prepares his black-and-gold soup with yellow peppers cut into fleur de lis shapes floating atop a black broth with beans. And at the Creole Country sausage plant in Mid-City, owner Vaughn Schmitt fills special orders for Saints-themed hog's head cheese using molds shaped like football helmets or the fleur de lis, which produce meaty, spicy, 3-pound sculptures that serve as centerpieces for game-day parties. These continue a tradition he inherited from his late mother, Fabiola "Fab" Schmitt.
"My mom would carve a little emblem for the Saints out of yellow American cheese and stick that on the head cheese helmet, too," Schmitt says. "Then she'd make an emblem for whatever team [the Saints] were playing every week. She had templates done up for all the teams. So we'd have two head cheeses. There was the hot one, which would be the Saints helmet, and the mild one, which would have the other team's emblem. Of course, the Saints weren't too hot back then, but we were always hoping."
Robert Johnston, a partner at the downtown law firm Fowler Rodriguez Valdes-Fauli, stokes one food ritual that could be classified as an edible grudge. For years he's made a brown, Cajun-style jambalaya for game days, and during the sorrowful tenure of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks and head coach Jim Haslett, this dish earned the moniker "Dammit Aaron Jambalaya."
"My friend Will and I would sit there eating jambalaya and yelling 'Dammit Aaron!' at the TV each time (Brooks) threw an interception," Johnston says. "We've had many heated discussions about whether we should change the name, but we've decided that, first, we couldn't come up with any better names than this one and, second, as Saints fans, it's always important to remember the bad old days, which makes these days that much more amazing."
Some Saints fans are even convinced that what they cook, eat or serve on game day has some mystic influence on the team's performance.
Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago's Seafood Restaurant, is determined that Saints players should eat his restaurant's signature char-broiled oysters whenever they prepare for upcoming games. So, just as he did last year, he dispatches a trailer-mounted grill and a crew of employees from Drago's to the team's training facility each Friday to serve the Saints.
"They say 'eat oysters, love better.' We say 'eat oysters, play better,'" Cvitanovich says.
The supply of Louisiana oysters has been tenuous since the BP oil disaster upended the Gulf seafood industry, but Cvitanovich has found a way to keep this pre-game tradition alive each week thus far.
"We really have to work to get the supply we need," he says. "But I'd shorten my restaurant (supply) before I'd shorten the Saints'. I'm a Saints fan, that's what you do. I'll make it happen because I'm not going to change a damn thing from last year. The team might not be superstitious, but I am. Every little thing I did last season, I'm doing it again this year."
It was spinach dip that got Uptown resident Matthew Gresham feeling superstitious back in 2006 when the Saints opened that season on the road against the Cleveland Browns. He and his friends were watching the game at Fat Harry's bar, and while the Saints led 9-7 in the third quarter, Gresham was distraught that the team had yet to score a touchdown.
"Well, somebody at the table ordered spinach dip and no sooner had it arrived than (Saints wide receiver) Marques Colston caught his first NFL touchdown pass to put us up 16-7," Gresham says. "We all looked at each other and toasted the momentum-changing spinach dip."
From then on, Gresham and his friends resolved to order the dip at Fat Harry's for each away game. Since this group has season tickets, they recruited a proxy to watch home games at the bar with instructions to await their call from the Dome and order spinach dip at the optimal time.
When it comes to Saints season, many local restaurateurs are learning the importance of timing as well.
Dannal Perry, a Bywater resident and owner of the Uptown boutique Plum, hosts out-of-town friends each December for a weekend that always includes a reveillon dinner, a festive prix fixe meal some local restaurants serve during the winter holiday season. Last year, Perry booked a table at Upperline Restaurant weeks in advance, but even so she was advised her group had barely squeaked in on a popular night. The reservation was for Saturday, Dec. 19, and while that date didn't seem significant at the time, it turned out to be the night the Saints faced the Dallas Cowboys in the Dome with the home team's 13-game winning streak on the line.
"We arrived that night and there was only one other table of two people in the restaurant, and they were obviously not from New Orleans," Perry says. "Everyone was so nice, and it was a great meal. But we all kept asking about the score, checking our phones."
The NFL schedule has emerged as an X factor for local restaurants. Those that open for brunch within walking distance of the Dome are often swamped before a Sunday kickoff, and after a win many dining rooms can fill again with spirited fans making a night of it downtown. But when a night game crops up on the regular schedule or — as so many New Orleanians hope will recur — during the postseason, restaurateurs all over the metro area must contend with business conditions that resemble an ersatz holiday.
Rock-n-Sake has a particularly tight relationship with the Saints. Sushi chef Dirk Dantin caters the personal Superdome suite of Saints owner/executive vice president Rita Benson LeBlanc, making rolls at a portable sushi bar and crafting Saints-themed garnishes like gridirons made of wasabi. The Warehouse District restaurant also earned a reputation as a hangout for Saints players, thanks to the patronage of Scott Fujita, the former Saints linebacker now playing for the Cleveland Browns. Dantin even names a specialty roll for the Saints player he thinks made the biggest impact each week, leading to creations like "Vilma's viciously delicious roll" and the "pick six Porter roll." None of this, however, insulates Rock-n-Sake from the feast-or-famine prospect of running a restaurant when the Saints are playing.
"It's all about when the game is scheduled and how (the game) turns out," says Tisbee Dantin, managing partner at the restaurant. "If it's a night game, we can kiss our dinner goodbye. No one's here. For a noon game at home, if the Saints win, it's like a Friday night in here. But if we lose, we'll get maybe half as many people, and everyone's depressed. No one's drinking; they just want to get their food and leave."
Rock-n-Sake will close altogether for the Pittsburgh Steelers game on Halloween night, Dantin says, because the restaurant anticipates very little business.
One street over, RioMar has taken a different tack this season. Though the Latin American seafood restaurant is normally closed on Sundays, owners Adolfo Garcia and Nick Bazan decided to open the bar on game days. Now a small crowd of regulars gathers there to watch the game on television while eating tapas and drinking Spanish wine.
"These days, when the team is doing well, not as many people are watching the games at home, they want to be out celebrating with other people," Bazan says. "All those night games last year killed us for business, so this is a way to get back a little too this time around."
Future Saints seasons were on the minds of Bryan and Jeremy Vigreux in 2009 when they opened their restaurant Vig Roux Po-Boys in Mandeville. The brothers decided to close their shop for any Saints game, no matter when it occurs.
"It really wasn't much of a decision," Bryan says. "We've been Saints fans since forever and we knew that if we could pick what day we'd have off it would be when the Saints are playing. Last year, with those playoff games, sometimes we needed to close the next day, too."
The Vigreux brothers feel they've logged enough time in their restaurant kitchen by game day, so they don't organize any big pre-game meals. But for many others, Saints games are a chance for their own culinary exploits to shine. In some cases, the cooking has escalated to a competition all its own.
At Nat Sylve's home in Harvey, a Saints Sunday resembles a gathering of the tribes as relatives and friends from across southeast Louisiana arrive with tureens of courtbouillon or red beans, platters of paneed meat and gumbo by the gallon.
"Everyone brings their dishes already prepared," says Sylve, a plant manger at the ConocoPhillips Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse. "I tell them, 'Come cook here. Look, I'll set up some stoves and prep tables here, everything.' But they say, 'No, no. I'll just make it at home.' They're protecting their recipes, that's why. They don't want anyone to see how they do it."
Conversely, David Hunter does his Saints cooking where everyone can see. During the week, he works for Freightliner trucking company, but when Hunter travels from his Marrero home to his tailgating site along South Rampart Street, he's hauling about 80 pounds of turkey necks. He boils them right there in the parking lot, and until kickoff his friends pass by, pluck a neck from a steaming cooler and pick spicy, salty meat from the bony crevices as they discuss the Saints' chances.
"We started out doing sausage and that kind of barbecue," Hunter says. "But when we started getting into the necks, man, that really kicked up the party here. It makes people stop a while and talk, talk about the Saints, and that's what this is all about."
Junior "Lunchbox" Colosino, a manager at the industrial supply company Crescent Power Systems, tailgates for every home game, but he picks one game each season to turn his customary parking spot along Girod Street into a Cajun-style pig roast. He's planning this year's pork extravaganza for the Steelers game on Halloween night, and that means the 14-hour roasting process will have to begin around 2 a.m. to have a pig ready to share with friends about 4 p.m. that day. But Colosino doesn't sweat the effort entailed in this communal meal ritual.
"It's the Saints," he says. "It's about our team, our home. This is how we do things in our city. It's always about big family, big feasts. If you come over to my house, I'm going to feed you, and that's the attitude we bring with us to party before a game. Our culture revolves around this. If we lived somewhere else it would be different, but this is who we are.
"Now, since we're doing this on Halloween this year, we just have to come up with costumes that won't catch fire around the roaster."