About a month ago, one of my seminar students, Tim, a first-year fiction writer, said to me, “You should come with Deb and me to a Hawkeye game. Deb tailgates. You’d love it.”
Deb West has run the office at the Workshop for twenty-five years. Her first year there was also mine, as well as Frank Conroy’s first year as director; I was in his first-ever workshop. So Deb and I have a bond. We’re old-timers. We remember back when the Workshop was in EPB, the dark English-Philosophy Building, back when it was male-dominated and scary.
I said, “Which game? When?”
This past Friday afternoon, Gretchen arrived on the Megabus from Chicago. She had packed all her warmest clothes, because it was supposed to be the coldest home game on record. Gretchen, who came to the Workshop the same year I did, was the obvious person to invite to be my date for the tailgate: She had never been to a Hawkeye game, either, but for different reasons from mine.
I grew up in a family that was only uneasily American; my mother was born in Switzerland, her father in Germany, and after the Pusches emigrated to America during WWII, she grew up in Rudolf Steiner communities and Waldorf boarding schools, which are little puddles of European elitism. In Berkeley in the 1960s, my parents protested the Vietnam War and marched against the government. My mother and sisters and I were outsiders, weirdoes, misfits in the Baptist, Republican Sun Valley of 1970s Arizona. We did not watch sports. We listened to Bach and sang rounds and went camping and made our own dolls and wrote plays and stories and looked askew, askance, at American culture, even as we yearned to be part of it. (Only recently have I realized that, of course, we were quintessentially American.)
Gretchen, for her part, didn’t go to Hawkeye games when we were at the Workshop because, as a lifelong Oklahoma Sooners fan, she scorned Big 10 football. She grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the daughter of a petroleum engineer and a psychologist. She worshiped Jane Austen, wrote poetry, and was a math genius. Despite all this, she was always comfortable with her own Americanness, maybe because her family didn’t cast themselves as outliers. There was no cultural disconnect for her. When I first met her, I realized this about her and loved her for it, and I also, secretly, envied her.
“You do know the rules of football, right?” she asked me in the car on Saturday morning at 8:00, right before we picked up Tim.
As it happens, I do know the rules of football, because my ex-husband, who grew up in Pittsburgh, watched almost every Steeler game on TV during the fourteen years we were together, so thanks to him, I had absorbed the intricacies of downs, fumbles, and interceptions.
“Thank God,” said Gretchen. “Then I won’t have to explain it all during the game.”
We parked near Deb’s silver Caddy. She and her husband Mark and his brother were putting up the sides on the tent when we arrived. She greeted us with a big hug. It was the first time she’d seen Gretchen in twenty-five years.
I had been more excited about tailgating than going to the game, and I wasn’t disappointed. There was a propane heater going full blast by some folding armchairs. A huge pot of water had been set to boil on a burner, and they’d set up two tables and a grill. On the first table were plates, napkins, a pitcher of Bloody Marys, and a tray of strawberry confections, half of which were Jello shots. On the other table was an array of omelet fixings, a gallon jug of eggs beaten with milk, and a box of plastic bags. Evidently we were going to boil our omelets; I was dubious, but game.
“I learned it from fishermen,” said Mark.
“It’s Boy Scout omelets,” said Deb.
I added a pan of jalapeno-cheddar cornbread, a horseradish-heavy pitcher of Bloody Mary mix, and a jar of pickled asparagus to the first table. Gretchen plunked down a bottle of vodka.
It was eleven degrees Fahrenheit, and I had lost my hat the night before, so Gretchen and I went up to the Hawkeye-paraphernalia stand and picked me out an orange and black thermal cap with dangly ear flaps and a pom-pon on top. I put it on. Instantly, I was warmer. Also instantly, I was a Hawkeye fan. I could feel it. The whole time I’ve lived in Iowa City, I’ve been mystified by the amount of bumblebee-colored gear everyone wears. For the first time, I could understand the appeal, that warm sense of belonging to a tribe.
Back at the tent, we all poured ourselves breakfast cocktails and toasted, “Go Hawkeyes!”
Deb and Mark have been Hawkeye fans for many years; Tim, a transplanted New Yorker, is a recent convert; Gretchen had finally managed to add love for the Hawkeyes to her love for the Sooners; and I felt as if I were popping my football-fandom cherry then and there.
Just then, out of the blue, I remembered that my father used to be a Hawkeye fan. In the summer of 1988, when I was twenty-six, between my first and second years at the Writers’ Workshop, I spent the summer in the Bay Area. On a sort of whim, I called my father, whom I’d seen only sporadically since I was eight. One night, he took me to dinner; this was the last time I would ever see him, but I didn’t know it then. When he heard I was living in Iowa City, my cool customer of a father got eager and excited, like a kid.
“The Hawkeyes,” he said. “Great team. When I was at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s, my friends and I used to drive down to Iowa City for home games. We’d drive all the way back again that same night. Do you go to games?”
“No,” I said, startled.
And now, here I was, tailgating with my old Workshop pals, and just like that, everything came together, the past meeting the present and resolving itself. I belonged here as much as anyone, as much as I belonged anywhere. It was no big deal.
We assembled our omelets in plastic bags and boiled them. They came out fluffy and moist and better than just about any pan omelet I’ve had. We ate them with the cornbread, warmed on the grill in its baking pan, and Mark’s brother’s classic-seeming Midwestern casserole, “cheesy potatoes,” frozen hash browns mixed with a can of onion soup and a can of cheese soup and topped with grated cheese and baked. And we had chocolate-dipped strawberry Jello shots for dessert and Bloody Marys to keep us warm, and Deb’s homemade salsa with corn chips to snack on.
By kickoff at 11:00, it had warmed up to eighteen degrees. Gretchen and I put handwarmers in our toes. We made our way into the stadium with everyone else and stood in the stands with 70,000 fellow Hawkeye fans, jumping up and down, chanting, dancing, and yelling “Whoooo!”
Cheering, it turns out, keeps you warm. And it also works: the Hawkeyes fought their way from behind to win the game, 24-21, against their hated rival, the Michigan Wolverines.
Fisherman’s Omelet (or Boy Scout Omelet, depending who you ask)
Beat a dozen eggs with half a cup of milk and pour into a gallon jug. Assemble a cup or so each of various fillings, chopped or grated: bacon, sausage, onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, gruyere, Velveeta, and olives.
Put your choices of fillings into a tough plastic zip-lock Baggie, then pour enough egg mixture in so it fills about an inch and a half of the bag. Roll it up to get all the air out, then seal it well and write your name on it with a Sharpie. Boil it for 20 minutes, then open it and eat on a plate with salsa, cornbread, and cheesy potatoes.