I happened to be reading an old (pre-2000AD) copy of Bon Appetit, the US foodie magazine. By 'reading' I mean 'looking at' because when you read a recipe in a magazine, you don't take it in like you do when reading a detective story plot or a football match report. I have proven this theory dozens of times when browsing the cookbook section in bookshops: upon noticing a particularly delicious-sounding recipe and not being able to afford the book, I have attempted to memorise the ingredients. No matter how simple the recipe, I inevitably forget several ingredients by the time I get home. Yet I can always remember the smallest plot detail in a 768 page novel. For example, in which direction does Gandalf turn Shadowfax in Chapter Seven of 'The Return of the King'? The Barrow-downs, of course. Case proven.
Inside the back cover of the Bon Appetit was an interview with racing driver Richard Pretty. They asked him about the variety of food on the racing circuit. 'You eat at home,' he replied, 'or you eat hotdogs.'
There is a theory of stadium food. The theory describes a kind of upside down U-curve. At one end is big corporate stadium food: expensive pies, expensive chips, expensive bottled water, weak beer in plastic cup-like containers. That is just an insult. This year, big corporate stadiums tried to rectify the horridness of their big corporateness by reducing their food prices, while making crowd-'friendly' changes such as allowing children onto the ground after the game. But only on Sundays, when the game ends at about midnight! Nuts. Big corporate stadium head office probably had ten focus meetings and six power point presentations to think that one up.
The other end of the U-curve naturally goes from one extreme to the other, serving the kind of food I call Conspicuous Health Consumption. You have stalls selling sushi rolls in cute little plastic boxes with soy in little fishes, and quinoa salads that wouldn't satisfy a pregnant rabbit, and wholegrain rolls stuffed with pureed pumpkin studded with sunflower seeds and dusted with cumin powder. This is ridiculous. The whole idea of eating sushi while watching the third quarter of Collingwood v. Richmond is just so fundamentally flawed it doesn't even warrant discussing. Sushi properly belongs in one place, and that place has the gentle sound of a single wooden instrument, softly backlit windows and a lady in a gently shimmering silk kimono lingering in half shadow waiting to bring you some more saki. But at the football, no.
The middle of the U-curve is where you want to be. Take these ex-VFA grounds for example, now home to VFL matches; but maintaining their earlier VFA traditions, including volunteers serving the food.
Werribee, home of the sewage farm and Tim Blair, was a small country town when I first visited in the 1960s for a 'parish picnic', a long-forgotten type of traditional outing (note to Generations X, Y, Z and whatever they are calling the current one: 'outing' means a daytrip, not the forced revelation of someone's sexuality) complete with sack races, Irish dancing on the back of a tray truck, pony rides, barbecues and broom throwing. Yes: broom throwing. Times change. I counted 28 restaurants in Werribee's main street as we walked from the railway station to the football ground, the site of that 1960s parish picnic and this day's football match.
Half time. I always take food along to these games but you know what boys are like. Get the smell of a pie stall or a deep fryer across the grass and they're hungry again. We walked around the half-forward flank at the city end towards the members' wing, where the food stalls were set up in several volunteer tents next to one of those ubiquitous Coffee to You vans. One of the tents had a huge grill going, and not just sausages. Home-made patties were served in rolls as a hamburger; or in bread, as a sandwich. There's a difference. I asked for the sandwich, and there was a choice of salad. I chose the coleslaw, and the server extracted enough coleslaw from the tub to make the sandwich about six inches high. Three dollars. On the way back around the flank to our spot in the forward pocket, Thomas and William decided they were hungry again and shared the sandwich; not with me, with each other. I went and got another one.
Stadium food rating: four stars.
It was that Sunday a few weeks back that saw the biggest July downpour in twenty years. You could hardly get into the ground: the entrance, slightly concave from decades of crowds, was a sea. 'That's not going to stop us,' I joked to the volunteer ticket seller as we crept around the six-inch isthmus of dry land alongside the ticket box. Welcome to Trevor Barker Oval, he said. Members of other clubs, $5. You don't even come close, Mr Corporate Stadium.
It rained all day. Coburg led 40 points to nil at quarter time before Sandringham wound it back. It was the start of a rollercoaster four weeks for the 'Burgers. The canteen is a small standalone brick structure on the Beach Road flank just around from the members' stand, staffed by volunteer ladies selling homely fare; salad rolls made by humans, dim sims, hot pies. Thomas had asked for a cup of tea. I ordered the tea and paid. Then the boys asked for a bag of chips, seeing some on the counter. You need actual cash at these places - no cards, of course - and unfortunately I was now out of spare change. Overhearing the conversation and presuming the tea was for me, and that I had denied my children a snack even while indulging myself with hot tea, the lady immediately and sympathetically offered them a bag of lollies, free. Volunteers are angels.
Stadium food rating: three stars.
North Port Oval is legendary and notorious at the same time. Now the ghosts of the past – or is it the wind? – moan in the sadly-empty Norm Goss grandstand, a massive Victorian era structure that rises over the ground agape like the jaw of a dementia patient. We walked from the Fred Cook end around the southern wing to the rolador-window canteen just before half time, but the canteen was drinks and snacks only, and the man pointed to the lower grandstand. What a revelation. Underneath the stand is a walk-in servery as big as ... well, as big as it needed to be in the 1960s and '70s glory days of the VFA, when several hundred painters and dockers would fight to get to the pies and chips at half time on freezing afternoons. Today, we were alone in the space apart from the ever-smiling ladies behind the enormous bain marie and display cases featuring all the usual home-made fare, sandwiches, rolls, home-made cakes, etc. Six dollars for crisp, golden, hot, perfect chips in a bag the size of an SP bookie's.
Stadium food rating: five stars
I can't believe how many people don't know where Coburg City Oval is - probably because it doesn't front onto Sydney Road or Bell Street. It is landlocked behind the Coburg indoor pool to the north side, the Russell Street car park to the west, Coburg bowling club to the south and the wasteland of the old, demolished Coburg high school to the east.
On match days, we sit behind the pool end goal where we are frequently the only supporters. Sometimes Coburg legend Phil Cleary wanders past, snapping the odd photograph and chatting to anyone who wants to talk. The live telecast isn't the same without Phil, but come to Coburg City Oval on match day and you can talk to him live.
The kiosk is a two-minute walk around the west wing, at the grandstand end in the shadow of the cricket scoreboard. The aroma of hot chips and pies floats across the ground and is impossible to resist. Help yourself to sauce, mustard or vinegar from the catering size pump-pack bottles on the counter, gratis. Much better than having to pay for those tiny plastic sachets that never contain enough sauce when you try to squirt it onto your pie. There's a social club if you get too cold or want to sit in comfort and watch the football through glass, like the business networkers in Corporate Stadium land. I know where I'd rather be. Go 'Burgers.
Stadium food rating: four stars.