New Orleans Tailgating – Preau-Style January 24 2011
Preau. It’s Cajun-French. Hooked on Phonics: pro.
Football and food works for Kristen.
“With a last name like ‘Pro’, it kind of makes sense that we have a sports-related family,” she said.
She attributes the infancy of her fandom to big brother Kevin, a star at one of the local Catholic high schools, Holy Cross. For young quarterbacks who star under the Friday night lights in New Orleans, there’s one legendary football family that has the position on lock.
“There’s an article from his high school playing days where he was compared to another local high school quarterback by the name of Eli Manning. And Kevin was actually ranked above him,” she said.
Kevin would eventually take his golden arm to the diamond as an outfielder for Louisiana-Lafayette. But for Kristen, his time under center at Holy Cross created the original Jambalaya Girl opportunity.
“Growing up, from Little League through high school, I was obviously cheering for my brother at all of his games. But after the game, my dad and I would cook and feed the players. I was the lucky one who got to actually hand them their bowls of jambalaya,” she said.
Spoiled Rotten Fan
Kristen grew up as an athlete. In an athletic family that succeeded on the field. With kitchen roots that reflected the city. That she cooked up for her brother’s teams.
Then she grew up. And became a young professional. In a city where fans once attended home games with brown paper bags over the heads. And got ahold of her first set of season tickets.
And the Saints promptly – perhaps properly – won the whole damn thing.
“As a newcomer to the season ticket world, you can say I’m a little spoiled. My first official season and they win the Super Bowl? Amazing!” she said.
Teasing Kristen is OK because technically, it’s true. But that would be looking past her family history with the black and gold.
“My mom used to go with her dad to Tulane Stadium when they first started in New Orleans. She had a book of autographs from going to the games and getting the players to sign it. And that history spread down to me,” she said.
In truth, she’s not spoiled at all. That history leaked down through the generations remains the not-so-distant proof.
“Being a Saints fan in this city has always been about rallying behind the team, win or lose. I’m still young, but even I know that New Orleans spent years dealing with the reality of the ‘AINTS’,” she said.
So no matter how the team does moving forward, Kristen’s hooked – and booked come Sunday.
“I’m going to always remember the Super Bowl season – no matter what. It’s different with this team, the Super Dome, the whole citywide sporting experience. And I want to always live that New Orleans spirit at games – and beyond, out into the city – trying to never get spoiled expecting a Super Bowl every year,” she said.
A City Like No Other – In Costume
Superfans. The buzz they create. It permeates the pavement every Sunday.
Guys like “The Pope” and “Whistle Monster” and the “Halo Saint”. Kristen’s gotten to know them well.
“I have the privilege of being know to many of the crazy characters who dress up special each week – kind of like a little sister,” she said.
Together they create more than a parking lot extravaganza – they give back.
“We created a calendar of our characters for charity. It’s not just about the team – it’s about the whole New Orleans experience, and that means helping out whenever you can,” she said.
For Halloween, the Super Dome became a grownup version of trick-or-treat.
“There was barely anyone who wasn’t dressed up as some kind of crazy Saints fan. But it’s kind of like that every week – like a tailgate version of Mardi Gras. People go around in school buses and flatbed trucks, parading the mobile tailgate through the music, throwing beads,” she said.
Riding a Float Down Memory Lane
When every weekend seamlessly morphs into what many college spring breakers count all their pennies for, the remembrance bar is set pretty high. But Kristen didn’t disappoint.
“When I was in high school, I learned how big a deal the Saints were to this city. When they got into the playoffs, school shut down. It was kind of like a ‘snow day’ for us,” she said.
The first home game after Katrina? The one that turned even this die-hard Bears fan into a Saints lover for a day? Kristen had to be there.
“I didn’t even have a ticket – but I just had to be around the Super Dome. Literally, for blocks and blocks and miles away, when we blocked that punt it was just as loud in the streets as it was inside the stadium,” she said.
Relief. An exclamation point. The opportunity for an entire city to engage in the exorcism of pent-up noise.
“It was the big scream all of us had been wanting to make – to finally be able to say ‘YES!!!’ with 100 percent behind it. In the words of a buddy of mine, it was ‘turbo awesome’,” she said.
So awesome – so emotional – that Kristen felt an even stronger connection to that moment than when Garrett Hartley’s field goal split the goal posts masquerading as a fleur-de-lis to send the Saints to the Super Bowl.
Big City, Small Town – Passion All Around
Inside. Outside. The Dome and its tributaries are just the starting point ‘Who Dat Nation’ calls home.
“My grandfather got so excited one time that he spit his fake teeth out. He was screaming so loud that his dentures ended up under the bleachers – and after the game he had to go find them. That kind of excitement doesn’t come from any other kind of moment,” she said.
It’s a passion shared by New Orleans families. Saints families. And the dinner tables where stories like those get passed down. It comes from the players, the coaching staff, and the franchise’s leading man.
“It’s Drew Brees and everything he stands for. What the players said all season and at the podium after the Super Bowl. It really was for the city – they weren’t just out there playing for themselves,” she said.
Brees is known to turn dinnertime at local establishments into teaching tools for team chants. In turn, fans are just as likely to greet the team at the airport after a tough loss as they are after a big win.
“It’s even more true since Katrina. When you see a Saints player on the street, you want to welcome them to the city. The fans feel personally connected to the team,” she said.
Game day is about sharing songs. And smiles. The atmosphere is more wide-open than the litany of Saints receivers tormenting opposing secondaries.
“Chances are you probably know half the people you see on your way into the game – so you consider them family by default,” she said.
Kristen compares the experience to visiting the city as a tourist.
“We’re a very welcoming city, a family-type atmosphere. No matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s something for you here. You can really fit in – and that connection point is strongest around the Saints,” she said.
The first time Kristen’s cast iron pots bubbled with jambalaya, they added a star to her big brother’s recruiting ranking. Their second appearance saved a school’s athletic department.
“I graduated from Southern Mississippi in May of 2005. I took my time that summer trying to find a full-time job back in the city and eventually found one in the athletic department at the University of New Orleans. I signed my paperwork on the Friday before Katrina,” she said.
Forced to evacuate to Louisville, Kentucky, Kristen called her boss to see if she still had the job.
“Miraculously, I was officially hired. And I received a challenge: keep my job by finding a way to raise money in the aftermath of the destruction,” she said.
Kristen’s dad had a warehouse full of cast iron pots that didn’t get flooded. They had already been trying to think of ways to sell cookware.
“We’re just sitting there and he says, ‘What if we used the pots and started cooking up jambalaya?’ We came together and created a tailgating fundraiser,” she said.
They coined it “Get New Orleans Cooking Again” and hit the road. Tailgating – normally the very definition of football and food – took on a new meaning: healer.
“We started giving out jambalaya in return for donations. So many school loved the idea and it generated a lot of buzz. We traveled everywhere: Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas – just a huge list of places,” she said.
They raised almost 100K for the University of New Orleans athletic foundation. Turned their van into a personal pantry for countless families displaced by the hurricane. And knew that one day, this would become their life’s work.
They’ve been traveling in that direction ever since.
The lessons learned by playing sports often teeter between the lines of patience and pain. Success – in the form of victory – instills in the fiercest of competitors a fine line between hating to lose and loving to win.
The lessons learned in the family kitchen often waft between the senses of smell and taste. Success – in the form of a recipe complete – instills in the finest of chefs a fine line between wanting to please and the art of the feed.
But no hurricane. No oil spoil. No decades-worth of losing teams. None of it jaded the leader of the Cook Me Somethin’ Mister team.
Nor will one Super Bowl spoil her.
The official taste-testers of her jambalaya-centric world are with her every Sunday.
“Yum, yum, come getcha some!” is their sing-song dinner bell call. It’s actually listed in the official cooking instructions, right after all the basic ingredients needed to create this special batch of jambalaya.
And their leader in her fork earrings knows that the answer to your raised-eyebrow inquisition – “What is that little young lady doing, working that big ole’ cast iron pot?” – will be answered with your first taste.