How Man v Food became Man Utd v Barcelona

Our Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda, reflects on quite a weekend, and why he loves his wife…of course it’s football related!

This past weekend was one of the most superb, thoughtful, exciting, loving weekends I have ever experienced. It involves football, although early Saturday morning this was the furthest thing from my mind. It involves food, specifically eateries featured in the US TV series Man v. Food (which is on UK TV as explained here). It involves clandestine planning and skullduggery – all good of course – on a level few are capable of (helped no less by my website host, the imperious football planner himself @theballisround). And it involves the other love of my life, Manchester United. So, I am going to write a stream of happy, smiley, giddy consciousness. If I ramble, I make no apologies. I want to document this for myself, as a record of a truly wonderful idea, a wonderful plan and wonderful weekend. If you get bored you can always flick over to Joey Barton’s twitter. But finally, to whom do I owe all this? I owe this to my amazing sneaky Utd appreciating wife.

This was the second year Manchester United had toured the US for pre-season. I specifically arranged my evening to watch the first game, a 4-1 beating of Stevie Nichol’s New England Revolution; got somewhat enthused by the rousing 7-0 thrashing of the Seattle Sounders; and had the 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire as a little more than background noise. For weeks I had debated with colleague and sports nut Andy whether it was worth $200 odd per ticket for the friendly vs. an MLS assortment, sorry All Stars, at nearby Red Bull Arena. We decided it wasn’t. So we watched it at my regular East Village football Mecca, Nevada Smiths. Leading up to this fixture I had, so I am now told, flippantly referred to these games as “meaningless”, “just friendlies”, even “a waste of time”. Not comments that would normally move my wife. How was I to know what she was planning? How could I possibly know? It was against a backdrop of my growing indifference, that she later told me my coming home that night, somewhat inebriated and repeatedly, in my worst Scottish accent, shouting the words “United don’t do friendlies” over and over again, was perversely music to her ears. (In fact Sir Alex never said these words, but he sure as hell meant them).

What I did know was that Katie had planned – in what seemed like an spontaneous seize the moment kind of moment – a weekend road-trip to the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.. This trip was to tick her boxes: US civil war sites along the way; and tick mine: a handful of eateries from Man v. Food. For those not frequented with Man v. Food, look it up on YouTube: a foodie who visits the best of US “comfort” food spots, and who at the end of each episode attempts a wildly absurd eating challenge. Unfortunately, our D.C. road-trip would not take in the splendidly named Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse burger. To me this sounded like a splendid weekend.

On the Saturday morning Katie was up at the crack of dawn, bristling with planning excitement as is her way. I took a little longer to stir, but we were still at the car rental place at 8:00 a.m. Now I am a sucker for an upgrade without thinking it through: “now you look like the kind of guy who wants to be chauffeur driven in a soft top”, “who, me? Yes, now you mention it… Done”. Only one hour later we were back at our apartment with me furiously downloading a TomTom app for my iPhone. We had driven three miles. What cars don’t come with SatNav these days? Soft top Mitsubishi’s obviously.

At 10:00 a.m. ish we left Brooklyn for Staten Island across the Verrazano Bridge… ROAD TRIP! (This is an obligatory shout when on a road-trip US TV has taught me). It is here I tell you a simple fact: I hold a drivers license; but I don’t drive. And most definitely not on the wrong side of the road, good god no! So not only is my wife my, er, wife, she is also my de facto chauffeur. Lucky her.

Our drive took us through New Jersey, on the New Jersey Turnpike as immortalized by Simon & Garfunkel in their song ‘America’; briefly into Delaware; and into Maryland, where by the power of twitter @theballisround would inform me that it was “illegal to take a lion into a cinema”. Nothing like a random local state law to pass the time (such a hardship being driven). I was informed of another law, but we cannot repeat it on a family website such as this. Still intruiged?

On the outskirts of Baltimore, we arrived courtesy of Jane, our English TomTom voice (default voice setting, promise – it was Jane and her “motorways” or Homer Simpson), at our first Man v. Food destination, Chap’s Pit Beef. How I laughed as Jane guided us to a beat up decaying industrial heartland neighbourhood in the middle of nowhere. Next to a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, a ‘Tire’s R Us’ and a ‘Check Cashed Here’ joint, sat Chap’s Pit Beef. Now never judge a book by its cover in middle America, and boy did this apply to Chaps. As we walked in I spied a family. Not just any family though, but a family all decked out in Vodafone, Sharp, AIG and AoN football shirts. Katie tells me I looked visibly sad at this moment. It was then I realized how close Utd were – the players no doubt relaxing in a D.C. hotel, or tweeting if your name is Rio – and here I was on a civil war/TV food show road-trip in a beaten up shack next to a goddamn skin joint. I gathered my thoughts and studied the menu. The food in Chaps was good. Great smoked beef and ham as I had seen on the program. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the amazing gravy. Worked a charm on the fries. If you are ever in the Baltimore area, I urge you to find the place. Or cash a check. One detail concerned me: Katie, not a fast food lover, was polishing off her turkey platter. Not like her I thought. Not with dinner later with “friends”. Clues flashing right before my very eyes perhaps? Nope. I am as gullible and blind as a bat when it comes to these things.

Late lunch consumed, we set off for the 45 or so miles from Baltimore to Washington D.C. On our way in we passed the Nationals stadium. Obligatory tweet to @theballisround. The freeways took us into downtown D.C.. Whatever your opinion of the US, of its politics, there remains very few views more inspiring and spine tingling than when you see Capitol Hill, the Washington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial all line up. When we got to our hotel, around 4 pm ish, I informed Katie that I could do with a doze.

“Er, please type the restaurant destination into the TomTom” she asked me.

“Why, I thought we were getting the metro to this restaurant?”

“Er, I’m tired I think I’ll drive.. PLEASE open the envelope and type in the restaurant destination” I was told, somewhat sternly.

Now there are few moments as an adult when your expression completely and utterly says what you are thinking. As adults we learn to be guarded, even if momentarily. Childlike, this was one of those moments where that went out of the proverbial window. I opened a drab yellow office internal mail envelope and pulled out… restaurant details…no… Ticketmaster tickets to… hold on… now hold on a nano-second….. to… United? For real… UNITED vs Barca? MY UNITED. MY UNTED THAT ARE IN WASHINTON D.C.?

Katie looked on as I broke it down like a child opening a present. I am not one to pen paeans for the fun of it, but in that moment I am not sure I have ever loved my wife more. Not because we were going to see United, in D.C., play arch-nemesis Barca, but because she had so swiftly, effectively and dare I say it ruthlessly got under my skin and understood me more than anyone else has ever understood me. When she laid out my clean United ‘Rooney’ shirt on the hotel bed, I knew. I knew. I knew my life partner understood me more than I could ever ever appreciate. (Later tales on the drive home the next day of Katie informing her mother in Maine on the phone a few days before “but Ma you have to understand, he loves Rooney more than me” only confirmed what I knew. And for the record I don’t).

We rushed to the Metro to make our way from Foggy Bottom to Morgan Boulevard. One excruciating journey to FedEx Field, involving a swift jog to the stadium – one of those typical US stadiums in the middle of nowhere – later and we were in our prime lower tier, just ahead of the corner flag seats. I was as excited for Katie to see my heroes as I was. In a packed stadium of eighty one thousand vocal fans. For me that has been something the US can be proud of – its huge interest in, dare I say it, friendlies. And what with its unerring support for the Woman’s World Cup, the US has something to build on in soccer terms in recent weeks.

The match ended 2-1 to United. There are match reports a-plenty out there, so I won’t labour the point. Nani looked good. I like Phil Jones. De Gea got booed every time he touched the ball from the Barca contingent. But my favourite thing was shouting “come on ‘at the Michael Owen’” at @themichaelowen. I’d like to think he was spurred on by this twitterati behavior before he scored infront of us. I know the match meant little. But I loved every second of it. I don’t often share United moments with Katie, unless it is at Nevada Smiths – and she only attends to hear “Seven Days of Cantona” – but she saw United last Saturday. And I love that.

The Sunday saw us sample another Man v. Food location in the form of Ben’s Chili Bowl before our return journey to New York. While Ben’s has been frequented by many a POTUS, I imagine this is more for the kitsch exterior décor and photo opportunity than its food. I could get a comparable chili hot dog anywhere in New York City, and Coney Island would take any prize from Ben’s if challenged. A few hours later in downtown Baltimore, after walking past Flag House, home of the original Star Spangled Banner, and less inspiringly through the Baltimore projects, we had late lunch at the superb Obrycki’s. This sums up Man v. Food: not fine dining, but fun dining. The crab cakes, we were in Baltimore don’t forget, were to die for.

As I write this I cannot stop grinning. My marriage is solid. My wife understands my connection to my team: so engrained in my fabric, she meticulously planned a weekend around them. Knowing it would make me happy beyond belief. And for that reason I know I am one lucky, LUCKY boy. Mr Fuller told me as much. And he is rarely, if ever, wrong now is he loyal readers?

Quite how she is going to trick me into getting on the wrong plane, landing in Manchester and stumbling into an Old Trafford box for a Manchester Derby is now another matter. “Darling, work wanted you to come over to London, but couldn’t get hold of you. And I have to come, @theballisround said so. And you will never believe this……… our plane was diverted to… to… Manchester!” My wife has set a very high bar for herself.

(Did I mention this was an early anniversary present? 28th of this month, August, is the real date. I cannot top this, so instead I better replace the diamond earings I accidentally flushed down the sink a few weeks back).

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