friday night lights

friday night lights | Chef Gretchen Hanson | boys of summer


Friday Night Lights

Our sleepy, coastal Southern California town was a little more than a stone’s throw from the border and spitting distance from Charger stadium. Our professional team was an object of derision for most of my formative years, but nobody really cared. They were our Chargers and our Chicken and we thought they were just great the way they were. The Chicken made fun of them, and so did we. But they suited us with their laidback approach to a winning season, the lackadaisical approach to pot usage and the lack of superstar press personalities.

My doctor stepfather was a former professional football player from the East Coast who had scrubbed out halfway during his first season as a Jet rookie quarterback to to pursue his backup plan of medical school, followed up by a couple of tours in Vietnam. Marriage required converting to football as our new religion. After he got over the disappointment that his ready-made family did not include a son, he began teaching me everything that you could ever want to know about this oh-so-foreign American pastime.

Football in our lives was ultimately relegated to the Friday-night lights of the Mustangs at San Dieguito High School, where he’d volunteered as team physician. Football surrounded us but purely at the amateur level. Professional games were special events, like holidays, few and far between. But amateur football was a way of life. It was the promise of fall, and the glory of youth, all wrapped up in a seven-hour Friday night. My stepfather had a busy and successful practice, but you would never know it when it was football season. He practically lived on the field. He trained with the boys, ate with the boys and never, ever, missed a practice. Since he could not have an adopted son, my stepfather was constantly looking for the hangers on who needed a strong father figure. They hung around him adoringly, worshipfully waxing his Corvette and listening to every Vietnam or Jets story dozens of times; little shirtless puppies hanging on his every word and always underfoot. At first it was mortifying. I was never that girl who was comfortable with the jock crowd, we rarely shared any of the same classes, and I definitely was not part of their rarefied social circle at high school.  I was socially awkward and more than a little fat and chose to bury my longing for teenage acceptance and family normalcy in the unquestioning acceptance of feeding the training table. I cooked and they ate. It was a simple transaction.

And they could eat, oh Lord, can teenage boys eat. In a remarkably perceptive move my stepfather gave me an unlimited charge account at the local grocery store that delivered to our swanky community. We were now officially meat eaters again, and my typical Thursday or Sunday night team dinner would include massive quantities of animal flesh.

So these ravenous teenage boys became my favorite audience for what would eventually become my chosen career.  While most high school girls would have swooned to have the entire defensive line for dinner, all I thought about was how much they could eat and how many new dishes I could try. I have always been a “feeder,” invariably cooking for 30 or 40 instead of our family of four, so being at the cooking end of a teenage-boy training table was my personal heaven. While I still didn’t know yet that I would become a chef, “feeding the troops” was my father’s favorite rallying cry as I received my mustering orders.

My birthday lands in the end of January, and growing up, I would invariably share my birthday weekend (or at least just a party) with the Super Bowl. Our high school season was finished, and the last hurrah after all the bowl games would be celebrated with my dad inviting all the football players over for a game of touch football, a pool party, the Super Bowl, a good feeding and my birthday as an afterthought. I didn’t mind, though, because birthdays meant complete freedom with menu, and no one would question an obscene grocery bill.

When I look back I feel deep and abiding sadness at what we thought our lives would become when they were married. There were the days of glory and youth and promise and finally the semblance of stability that again became a travesty of expectation. The post traumatic stress disorder that was hidden during the courtship became worse and worse as time went on and the imagined normalcy of a life in the suburbs with the requisite one mother and one father became yet another fantasy, that was hiding the bruises and broken bones.  The two of them were what we would today call a power couple: beautiful, bright, educated, and well bred. They were a product of the times caught between the defining generation of the 50s collapsing into the disillusionment of the post Vietnam generation.

The elaborate parties celebrating their youth and good fortune became more desperate and false as I progressed through school. When I was done with the goody two shoes persona and launched into full scale rebellion, they were done with each other.  The psychological black and blue marks of a childhood that would sporadically and randomly erupt into violence were slow to heal. As many children of dysfunction before me, I could not stay away from the siren call of the chaos that I was raised in. So I sought the seediest relationships, most self-destructive behaviors and kitchens all over the world where I could wallow in my own form of punishment.

The divorce was the predecessor of my father’s incipient mental decay that must have been a long time coming. He was younger than I am now, when he descended into the twilight of fulltime dementia. I have not seen him since I was a young adult, but I remember him now the way I wish he was. I remember him as the father I wish I had. I remember the promise of the boys of summer throwing the football in the eucalyptus lined back yard; wide high spirals that arced and fell into cradled hands.

Authors note: This was originally printed in Coastal Style magazine in 2012. I am posting it as an ode to fatherhood and the father i had as well as the one I didn’t.

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