I am here to talk about sports, food, and sports and food. These are the two things I grew up on, the dual obsessions I’ve consumed with consistent abandon over the last three decades of my life. Hobbies have come and gone, girlfriends have come and gone. Food and sports have always been there for me. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that many of my most vivid food memories involve sports.
I remember as a kid when my friend Todd and I decided to split a twelve-pack from Taco Bell before playing an entire basketball game. We survived, though it was close. There was the time my friend Dave ate a Filet-O-Fish before one of our high school basketball games, only to puke it up in a locker room sink during the third quarter. I recollect killing downtime playing second base and right field by eating sunflower seeds, and sucking on orange wedges at halftime when I played soccer. I’ll never forget sipping a flute of cava at Nou Camp in Barcelona, inhaling a Dodger Dog at Chavez Ravine in L.A., tucking into a succulent steak chimichurri across the street from the Boca Juniors stadium in Buenos Aires, being amazed by a Frito Pie at a San Antonio Missions game, admiring a brat at a Brewers game, even as I polished it off.
But for all the places I’ve been and things I’ve consumed, when I think of sports and food, I think of home—Georgia—and I think of the national drink of the South—Coke.
I think of Coke not only because Atlanta is the home of Coca-Cola, but also because in Atlanta you can’t go anywhere without seeing that iconic red-and-white logo, those swirly words in Spencerian script, the promise of enough sugar and caffeine to lift you high for 20 minutes and then crash you back to earth.
In the South, college football is its own religion. Once a week, we devotees come to gigantic cement cathedrals to attend worship services, to publicly proclaim our allegiances. Fall weekends are spent either attending football games at your school of choice, traveling to away games to root for your team, or watching your school on TV. I’ve been to sports events around the world, and college football is an experience like none other, though it most closely aligns with the spectacle of soccer matches in Europe; the biggest difference is that most college football teams play just six home games a year, so all the emotion and anxiety of a long soccer season is condensed into just a couple of weeks during the college football season.
I started going to University of Georgia football games as a kid. I refused to get up from my seat and risk missing any action, so my Dad and I purchased all our refreshments from the kids who wandered the stands lugging metal trays packed with souvenir cups of fountain Coca-Cola. Since the drinks were prepared earlier, with no small thanks to the hot and humid weather, by the time the Cokes were trucked out into the stands, some of the ice in the drink had melted. This created an ounce or so of water atop the Coke.
The first time I tried it, I didn’t like it. The second time, I was a little more understanding. Before long, I actually started liking it. Maybe I wasn’t old enough to know better. It makes no sense, I know. Adding water would seem to work against every basic tenet of Coca-Cola: lessening the vaguely caramel flavor; reducing the concentrated sugary blast that stings your teeth; tempering the invigorating bubbles that dance up into your nose.
When football season ended, I started going to basketball games, and I realized that the Cokes bought from the vendors there had the same feature. Same with baseball games. Before I knew what was happening, this became the taste of my youth, the flavor of my sporting life. And when I even think of a sports event, my mind immediately flips through an imaginary box of index cards until it finds “WATERY COKES.”
I can’t recreate this drink at home—the authenticity of a watery Coke comes from consuming it in the stands, at a game, sitting in public seating, surrounded by screaming fans. None of that stuff has any physical effect on the drink, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, it changes everything.