“Can I get my picture with you?”
I almost didn’t hear the question, preoccupied in trying to find how to put a photograph of the small plate of jambalaya on Twitter. The jambalaya was not one of the premier dishes of the night—served with chicken and mushrooms over white rice, the sauce was thick from hours of simmering with hints of mild peppers, but the promised presence of andouille sausage wasn’t; and who serves jambalaya over rice, rather than cooking it in the pot with everything else?—but I had eaten only small helpings before that point.
Kindly, he repeated the question and I snapped back out of virtual meanderings. The man was in a suit, gray fuzz for hair. Why would he want a picture with me? But then there was the knowing smirk on his face, some half-wry dad joke, something of a sort I was missing. There was no time for it. I fell right into the trap.
His eyes tweaked as he went for the kill. “You’re one of the players, right? Can I get a picture with you?”
I looked down. Sure enough, next to a TSA-sized bottle of Purell there was Lomas Brown’s name card. Except there was no Lomas Brown, just myself and the jambalaya.
One of the first things I sought out as soon as I got in was the pasties. I had never really taken to the dish before, but this was a Michigan event and I needed to be portable. I needed to be ready as soon as Sam Martin made his way to the media scrum. The chef for this one had come on down from Plymouth and the pasties were filled with top sirloin. She smiled and pointed me towards the paper cups of ketchup. Why not? Pasties are often dry, taking too much from British fare and refusing to make itself interesting to eat. But the meat selection worked wonders to the old yooper dish and I abandoned the ketchup after the second bite.
Sam smiled, answering questions about his practice by talking about the changes in the punting game in the professional ranks.
I had some time now to check out the Nomad Grill stand, serving a raspberry mousse with maple granola, plus a miniature perch po boy. I had to dig a bone out of the perch but it was done well, plus the staff had a bottle of Tiger hot sauce on hand, which I used liberally. The mousse was adequate, although lacking in whatever the topping was supposed to bring to the palate.
Taste of the Lions used to have its place in the summer activities roll as a golf tournament, and it’s a sensible upgrade. Barring the fact that no one actually enjoys golf except for sadomasochistic predilections, everyone can relate to the act of eating. Besides, there’s strozzapreti norcina here from Bigalora. Served in what I guessed to be vodka sauce. The sausage was mild, perfectly balanced with the mushrooms.
Rod Wood joined the fray next. This was certainly his element. He enjoyed soaking in the press, fielding questions here and there about his plans for bringing the NFL Draft to Detroit. There always seemed to be something new to sell, and Wood gives the inside notes readily. It’s unclear if it’s by design, but it certainly keeps the Lions floating on the sports pages. It’s a neat trick for a sport with so few games, such a short season; almost necessary to stay alive sometimes.
Ameer Abdullah descended from the stairs and addressed the reporters on his status and where he stood with the way the Lions were looking at other running backs. All the while, others were crowding up behind me. The guests were realizing they had a proper Lions football player on their hands, and the handler had to redirect half a dozen people; he’d be available later, yes he’ll be down here to sign autographs, but this is later, please try the chicken while you wait.
I didn’t see Abdullah after that, but the press was shuffled off quickly. The atrium was filling up, we needed to get proper sustenance. I needed a second plate of the strozzapreti. Maybe a drink.
I finally had the Atomic Chicken. A single tender supplemented with a few scraps of granny smith coleslaw. The tender was served in a dry rub, the heat touching off the instant it met oral contact.
As the night went on, the colors began to shift down on the field level of the dome. The whole area was still under construction, material and equipment set about.
The crowd was mixed. You expect the jerseys, the families bringing kids to see their favorite players, but then there were the cocktail dresses and suits mingled in. Certainly this wasn’t just for the game day experience.
But what brought everyone out here tonight? What compelled all these people on a weeknight in the middle of May—with a Tigers game next door, Hall and Oates at Joe Louis Arena, and what would become, unforeseen, Chris Cornell’s last show at the Fox Theatre—to cram themselves into a football dome to eat gourmet chicken nuggets? This was the small ticket tonight. I’d go watch Hall and Oates, maybe.
The obvious solution would be that people paid a lot of money for the tickets—at least someone did, in some form, a corporate body who passed them out or packaged with season tickets or just on a lark—but that doesn’t really comprehend the purchasing decision. There were more than a few here for the players, that much was certain, and a few were getting the ticket in drinks. But what all did this serve?
Sports fandom often gets called a modern form of tribalism, and it’s not quite a fair descriptor. It attempts to create a connectivity with people and location. Early on in North America it was a focus on civics—the city hosts the baseball team, cheer for the team, cheer for the city—but it’s not really that right now. The club is the locus, the civics becomes partially integrated (and often exploited), but it still needs a central location (again, also exploited. The public financing of stadiums often becomes a thorny mess and it’s easy to see where civics can be used to the benefit of an economic class who already possesses more than enough). While history may seem a luxury for a sports team (why worry on the past, why not try to win now?) it is the vehicle by which the fandom is replicated and passed on.
The place is the thing. History is not location but is often tied to it, and the business of sports often deprives those locations unless effort is made to remain. Ford Field is not Fenway Park; it is not Lambeau Field, it is not Koshien or Stamford Bridge. The Silverdome is in ruins and Tiger Stadium has been smoothed over for a cop venture. Whatever memories of its former players the Lions possess, they do not hold it on the location of Ford Field. It is an old club, one of the founders of the National Football League, but this was not where that history was made. There is no grandeur of history here. Bobby Layne did not throw passes here, Barry Sanders did not score touchdowns here. The location, should it not be replaced again in twenty years, is already at a disadvantage to tell the history of the Lions.
This isn’t to paint Taste of the Lions as cynical—far from it, it’s almost necessary if you’re in the business of memories and creating generational fans, which are customers—but perhaps as absolutely necessary.
On my way towards the far end of the atrium, I stumbled into a small viewing room, a helmet-shaped tent with a projector. For the few minutes I was there, I was barraged with the usual overtones of Detroit sports imagery—the tough town mentality, the adulation of blue collar values without any commitment to the emancipation of labor, the grit and all the jazz—before the video launched into a preview of what was to come at Ford Field. Renovations at club levels, bars in the upper bowl that those same auto-workers in the montage would probably never afford to see, improved wifi experience, dream renderings. Everything was there, hoping to sell the whole thing, to keep making that connection.