Drums In The Distance

The Friday newsletter embraces football's return with a loaded slate

Football never felt right last year.

I don’t need to belabor the point—you know why—but it was an awkward, stilted, difficult season, and one worth forgetting almost as soon as it ended.

Well, things aren’t perfect this year, not by a long stretch, but—at least for me—football season feels something close to right again. Yes, things are still bad in many ways, but a full schedule lies ahead, thanks in large part to the mostly-widespread vaccination of players and coaches. (Who ever would have thought Lane Kiffin’s next act would be Public Health Exemplar? What a time to be alive.)

I live about a mile away from a high school, shorter as the crow flies, and a familiar sound wafted over the trees last weekend, one I hadn’t heard in what seemed like a very long time. It was the welcome clatter of a distant marching band’s drumline, echoing through the still-muggy late-summer air.

It sounded like fall was finally coming.

It sounded like hope.

Alright, let’s not waste any time. Friday is LOADED this week: I’ve got a killer cocktail, a fun musical diversion, great media recommendations, and a terrific promotional giveaway.

But first? It’s football season. We need a proper snack.

7) Drop ‘em like they’re hot

I’m a simple man. I love a spicy snack. I love fried foods. And I love cheese. Today’s recipe—nay, culinary achievement—addresses all of these desires.

For almost two years, my culinary calling card has been the Kentuckiana Hot Loin, a dish I conceived by taking a Midwestern diner classic—the Indiana (or Iowa, depending on who you ask) breaded pork tenderloin sandwich—and treating it with a distinctly non-Midwestern level of spice.

Well, the thought recently occurred to me: why can’t I pull that same trick with another delicious Midwestern classic?

Let’s turn our eyes toward Wisconsin.

Let’s spice up some fried cheese curds.

Flamin’ Hot Cheese Curds

  • 8 oz cheese curds

  • One can pilsner-type beer

  • All-purpose flour

  • 2 eggs

  • Bread crumbs

  • 8 tablespoons cayenne pepper

  • 2 tablespoons paprika

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder

  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

  • 1/2 tsp MSG (optional)

  • oil

  • honey

  • mustard

  • A heat-resistant mixing bowl

  • A wire-type frying spider strainer

First, soak the cheese curds briefly—10 minutes or so—in just enough beer to cover them. This step isn’t strictly necessary, but I found getting them wetter helped the breading adhere. You can drink the rest of the beer while you cook; I won’t tell. Preheat a small, deep pot of vegetable oil to 375F, as measured with an instant-read thermometer.

Next, do a typical three-step dredge in separate bowls, tossing the curds in the flour, then dunking them in the eggs, and finally rolling in the bread crumbs.

In the heat-resistant mixing bowl, add the cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, brown sugar and MSG, and stir to combine. Prepare a plate or baking sheet with paper towels for draining after frying.

Drop the curds, a handful at a time, in the hot oil, and cook until just brown. It won’t take long, and you don’t want to overcook and risk melting them completely; a minute or two should be more than enough. Remove from the oil with the spider, and without any intermediate step, drop them right into the spice-mixture-filled mixing bowl and toss until they’re well-coated. Then—and this is essential, I determined through trial and error—scoop them back out with the strainer, and dunk for another 20-30 seconds in the oil.

(You will not be able to re-use this oil after this recipe. It’s worth the sacrifice.)

Remove to the paper towels, and continue frying, working in batches until complete.

Now, a delicious snack like this needs a dipping sauce, so I’m calling in some help. I’m bringing in the food world’s hottest power couple.

Equal parts of each, whisked together in a bowl, makes for an excellent honey mustard.

Okay, I can quit teasing you. You wanna see what they looked like? Do you?

They were every bit as good as I’d hoped; a crackling crunch on the outside giving way to a creamy inside, and the fiery zing of the cayenne complemented by the mellow dairy. I could eat three recipes worth of this. It’s an absolute killer, and I think you should try it too.

When have I ever led you astray?

(That’s a rhetorical question. Please do not answer it.)

6) The Noon Kickoff

I love a night game. Take tens of thousands of fans, lubricate them well, and shove them under the lights in a venue like Death Valley or Death Valley or Nippert Stadium, and there’s nothing quite like it.

Of course, if you’re not one of the handful of programs that network executives think regularly merit an 8pm kickoff, you’re often consigned instead to the sleepiest of football purgatories: the dreaded noon kickoff. It presents a lot of logistical dilemmas to start a game while half the country’s barely woken up, but specifically, it’s a real challenge when it comes to tailgating. If you want to squeeze in any revelry before an early game, you’ve got to be up with the first rays of dawn.

Well, I’ve been subjected to this fate plenty myself, and so I know how to handle it. You just need to add something with a little more kick to your tailgate plan. A little zing in your ting-tang, as they say. Things haven’t been the same since The Man banned original recipe FourLoko (RIP), but I’ve got something just as powerful; a boozed-up rowdy cousin to the Pensacola pioneered by my pal Steven Godfrey.

I call it The Noon Kickoff.

The Noon Kickoff

  • 1.5 ounces cold brew coffee concentrate

  • 1.5 ounces dark spiced rum; as you can see, I used Kraken

  • 1 ounce Aperol

  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice (squeeze half a lemon, basically)

  • A few dashes chocolate bitters (optional, but worthwhile)

  • Topo Chico mineral seltzer to top

There are lots of coffee-based cocktails out there, but a dispiriting number of them start with regular-strength coffee. I think that’s a mistake. Putting an ounce or two of coffee into a full-sized drink is barely going to give you any caffeine or flavor, and the whole point of this is to be a tasty eye-opener. That’s where I think using concentrate is essential; I used the little Starbucks single-serve cups, and it helps the coffee stand up to everything else once diluted. Shake the concentrate, rum, Aperol, lemon and bitters with ice, and strain into a tall glass with ice—or even better, an insulated water bottle. Top with seltzer; I prefer Topo Chico here, because it’s among the most-carbonated seltzers on the market, and retains a solid fizziness even when mixed with non-carbonated ingredients. Garnish with a lemon wedge if you care about appearances.

Now that’s what a coffee cocktail should be; not watery or lightly-caffeinated. It’s rich, bold, fizzy, and it’ll get your eyes open for even the weakest bottom-tier Big Ten nooner.

Oh, and now that you have Aperol, Kraken, and chocolate bitters on hand, you’re set up for a winter of making The Jules Verne. Thank me when the weather gets colder.

5) Let’s get weirdly nostalgic for the early aughts

In getting myself hyped up for a new college football season this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it felt like to first go off to college. It’s a time of mixed emotions—nervous energy, elated anticipation, anxiety and insecurity—and my initial plan here was to try to pull together a playlist of current artists that reflected that mood; I’ve got a few Gen-Z-type musicians I’ve been listening to a lot lately, and it felt possible.

I thought better of it.

You see, I’m 39. I try my best to stay up on music, but there’s simply no way I would be able to pull something like that off without ending up sounding like the kind of sports-television producer who still slips U2’s “A Beautiful Day” in as bumper music when heading to commercial on a college basketball game. As Grandpa Simpson once said, I used to be with it, and then they changed what it was.

So I decided to go in the opposite direction, running headlong into the warm, welcoming embrace of self-indulgent nostalgia. I pieced together a playlist that does sound like moving into a freshman dorm—if that dorm is Cincinnati’s Daniels Hall for the 2000-01 school year. This playlist is the sound of having a Gateway 2000 desktop, a lightning-fast T1 connection, and access to original, uncut Napster to fill that 10 GB hard drive with sweet, sweet pirated music.1

Here’s “Music from a T1 Line”:

After a few friends assisted in the brainstorming of this list, I sent the final version for review, and my friend Bill—a successful attorney and father of three—responded simply “So who wants to play Smash Bros and drink Natty Light?”

Me. I do. Very much so.

4) Let’s get in the real spirit of the game: failure!

Who’s got time to sit down a read a book this weekend, honestly? There’s wall-to-wall college football action, as handily illustrated in the utterly simple and incomparably-useful TV schedule on lsufootball.net (note: all times Central), and you simply don’t have the bandwidth for a big narrative.

But, what if your chosen game lags? What if the second half’s a complete dud, and the next game you want to watch doesn’t kick off for another couple of hours? What are you supposed to do? Go outside? Talk to your family?? Spend time with your own thoughts???

No, you can just digest football in a different form.

For that, might I suggest the lovely little volume Football’s Best Short Stories, a compendium of literary luminaries’ football stories first published in 1998, one I must thank Friend of the Program GeorgiaIsAVerb for introducing me to.

The book features work from a who’s who of MFA program reading list names, and the tone is set from the outset with T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “56-0”, the tragic and beautiful story of a beleaguered college lineman’s final game playing for a perennial loser.

The day of the game dawned cold and forbidding, with close skies, a biting wind and the threat of snow on the air. Ray Arthur Larry-Pete had lain awake half the night, his brain tumbling through all the permutations of victory and disaster like a slot machine gone amok. Would he shine? Would he rise to the occasion and fight off the devastating pass rush of State’s gargantuan front four? And what about the defense He hadn’t played defense since junior high, and now, because they were short-handed and because he’d opened his big mouth, he’d have to go both ways. Would he have the stamina? Or would he stagger round the field on rubber legs, thrust aside by State’s steroid-swollen evolutionary freaks like the poor pathetic bumbling fat man he was destined to become? But no. Enough of that. If you thought like a loser—if you doubted for even a minute—then you were doomed, and you deserved 56-0 and worse.

Hey, you know what? Why don’t I just send you this book?

[exaggeratedly yanks oversized lever]

3) IT’S ACTION COOKBOX TIME AGAIN

[AIRHORNS]

If you’re visiting the Action Cookbook Newsletter for the first time… welcome! This is a recurring thing I’ve taken to doing around here, a way to reward paying subscribers. I call it The Action CookBox, and it’s a periodic drawing for a valuable prize box whose contents vary each time, but are generally inspired by things I’ve recommended in these pages. I’ve done six of these to date, each one with a retail value of around $100, and Action CookBox #7 is a good one.

Today’s box includes:

  • Football’s Best Short Stories, as described above

  • Across The River: Life, Death and Football In An American City by Kent Babb: one of the best pieces of sportswriting and narrative non-fiction I’ve read in a long time, Babb’s brand-new book follows the 2019 season of the Edna Karr High School Cougars, as they chase a fourth straight Louisiana state championship while struggling with life in one of New Orleans’ most violence-plagued districts

  • Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned, by Alba Huerta: an excellent, fun cocktail guide I’ve cited in a few prior newsletters

  • A Javelin instant-read thermometer The specific model of instant-read I use in my own kitchen, one of the most consistently-reached-for tools in my kitchen. I’ve had mine for five years, and it still works great despite almost daily use.

  • A meat-tenderizing mallet. Again, the same one I use, perfect for hammering out a pork loin to make the Kentuckiana Hot Loin.

  • Kentuxican Bourbon Hot Sauce I feel like this one is just naturally on theme for me.

  • Shiny Action Cookbook Stickers! Perfect for your laptop, water bottle, or simple acts of casual neighborhood vandalism.

  • An Action Cookbook Keychain!

Here’s what you need to do to enter.

  • First, be a paying subscriber to the Action Cookbook Newsletter. Are you one already? Great! Thank you? Are you not? Well, there’s no time like the present—it’s easy, inexpensive, and though I might be more than a little bit biased here, I think it’s worth it. For only $5/month or $50/year, you’ll get three newsletters each week, every week, including the jam-packed Friday newsletters (like this one!) that usually only go to paying readers.

    Subscribe now

  • Second, please share this post, either by RTing if you’re on Twitter, forwarding today’s email to someone you think will enjoy it, or by using the share button here. Word-of-mouth is the best way for this place to grow, and anything you can do helps me immensely.

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  • Finally: sign up via this Google Form

Entries will be open until Monday at 4pm. I’ll announce the winner in Tuesday’s email. (Normally I publish on a very rigid Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, but I’m going to push Monday’s back a day on account of the holiday.)

Enter! Win! Thrive!

2) Non-football entry of the week

Fine, fine. Maybe you don’t like football. Maybe you’re a Michigan fan. Fortunately, there’s something else queued up this weekend for you: the funniest show on television is back, with What We Do In The Shadows debuting its third season on FX just yesterday.

If you’re not familiar, the series is an adaptation of Taika Waititi’s film of the same name, and it follows four vampires and their faithful human “familiar” living in present-day Staten Island. It’s dark, and at times gory—the four aren’t shy about killing an innocent victim or two—but it’s also deeply, deeply silly. Perhaps never was this more true than the Season 2 subplot wherein raconteurish vampire Laszlo, on the run from the vengeful Jim the Vampire, assumes the persona of Jackie Daytona, a human bartender in small-town Pennsylvania.

I could not be more excited for the series’ return; there’s nothing on television quite like it.

Now, let’s launch you into the weekend the best way I know how: with a celebration of the animals that make our lives brighter.

1) And heeeeeeeere come the pet pics

First up this week, Kristen M. has a very good old boy to share:

Hi Scott — Here's a pic of our first child, Finn, deeply tolerating his little sister. You featured his brother, Billy, a few weeks back, but Finn deserves a shout-out, too, for his willingness to cede his position in the family hierarchy in exchange for little more than table scraps. Everyone in the family loves this old boy.

Look at this sweet guy. I am deeply sympathetic to older dogs launched into the they-never-asked-for-it position of unwilling animal aunt or uncle. Finn is doing a much more tolerant job of it than my Holly ever has. Great dog.

Next up, Kevin W. has an all-weather best friend:

Hi Scott, way back in February during the winter storm in Texas, I captured some stunning pictures of Anya in her natural element that I never got around to submitting for the newsletter. A snow picture alone doesn't seem appropriate in late summer, so I created a collage I call "A Dog For All Seasons." She's pretty indifferent to the weather as long as she has her Jolly Ball and a container of water she can splash around and drink out of as messily as possible.

I enjoy this so much. Look at the versatility! The adaptability! The smile! Anya is up for anything, and I love her for it. Great dog.

Finally this week, Ellen M. shares a dog who knows they’ve got something good:

Thanks for featuring Duchess a few weeks ago after we lost her. My mom had said she wouldn’t get another dog (and was rather adamant about it) but after 24 hours she had totally changed her mind. She applied to the schnauzer rescue group where I got my dog, and all that to say, meet Ruby! She’s 7 years old and is an incredible joy already. This photo was taken just after she bounded in our car at her foster mom’s house, ready to start her new life. My mom has had her less than one week and they are already the best of friends. Ruby loves belly rubs and people, and she already loves you and everyone who subscribes to your newsletter because that’s just how she is. We feel so blessed. 

There are few things better than pictures of rescue dogs in their new peoples’ cars on the way home from the rescue/shelter, with the knowing smile of someone who knows that their life has just taken a turn for the better. Great dog, great moment.

Thanks to each of you for sharing, and—as always—thanks to each and every one of you reading today for taking the time to make the Action Cookbook Newsletter a part of your day. I appreciate your support, your readership, and everything you contribute to making this place worth coming back to each week.

I hope you have a great long weekend; stay safe, get some rest, and enjoy these last moments of summer before they’re gone. I’ll see you on Tuesday.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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1

Most of the songs in here were released between late summer 2000 and June 2001, but there’s a few earlier ones that had intense staying power for various reasons. For instance, Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me”, was four years old by this time, but hearing it was also the de facto signal that “three roommates need to hang out in the lounge for a while, the fourth’s significant other is visiting”. So it’s in.