Wings and a prayer

Houston, TX

The Super Bowl is more than just a grand final. It is a cultural phenomenon of truly epic proportions, with an almost religious fervour that builds like a crescendo over the empty-feeling weeks since the last whistle was blown in the regular NFL season.

Some Americans will not be impressed by my potentially-blasphemous adoption of a Biblical analogy. But in the interests of adhering to the First Amendment (surely that applies to temporary worker visa holders?) I will proceed nonetheless.

The Super Bowl – the 50th of which will be held tonight at the 49ers’ newly constructed coliseum in Santa Clara, CA – reflects a Holy Trinity of American pop culture, celebrated more so on this ‘Game Day’ than any other.

The first corner of the triad is sport itself. Spectators to tonight’s showdown between the always-a-bridesmaid Denver Broncos and the 2016-dominant Carolina Panthers, will no doubt bear witness to truly world-class athleticism, perseverance and precision – as is promised by any elite-level game of gridiron.

But of course, what happens on-field is only a small slice of sport in America. Melbourne likes to fashion an image for itself as ‘sporting capital of the world’, but pretty much any American city would have a reasonable claim to the mantle. The typically enthusiastic, merchandise-clad crowd seen at any regular season game is likely to be amplified even further tonight.

The American sports media being as obsessed with ‘narrative’ as its political press is, this year the story is all about the dogged stoicism of Peyton Manning pitted against the youthful showmanship of Cam Newton in a crafted Clash of Titans that adds incentive (in case any was needed) to be perched on edge of seat.

The second corner is advertising. Critics of American football often point to the stop-and-start meter of the game and excessive commercial breaks. On Super Bowl at least, these opportunities for cinematic salesmanship are almost as important as the game itself.

This week, the highest rating (non-sports) show on television was NBC’s 50 Greatest Super Bowl Commercials of All Time, a broadcasting masterpiece that is almost unthinkable in any other country. Granted, with budgets that exceed the entire Australian film industry’s gross revenue and cameos from A-list stars, it is not as entirely ridiculous as it may appear to foreigners who believe instinctively that ads are a necessary evil and a chance to utilise the mute button.

But the role of commercials in this great sporting pageant taps into something deeper: the lack of awkwardness about money and the great respect many Americans have for quality salesmanship and service. Tonight I will not be pressing mute and will have my credit card at the ready, should instant inspiration for a Pepsi or McDonald’s burger be forthcoming.

Hunger is unlikely to be a strong inclination as the game gets underway, however, as the third corner of the Holy Trinity is of course, food.

While American culture holds a healthy appetite in high esteem at all times of the year, Super Bowl is seemingly an occasion for special over-indulgence.

The US is one of those unique countries, like Italy and France, where consumption of stomach-enlarging foodstuffs is more than just a personal preference. It is a deliberate culinary philosophy and way of life.

Sure, the now-unstoppable rise of dogmatic nutritionists has taken root here as it has back home, sweeping across the country from the Pacific West like a leisure wear-clad, kale-munching plague.

But Super Bowl is an opportunity for these health zealots to be silenced, and for the over-eating majority to over-indulge in peace, knowing they are engaging in an important cultural experience.

For weeks ahead of tonight’s main event, shops, social media posts and (of course) TV ads have engaged in a Super Bowl-themed bid to outdo each other on creative calorific concoctions, with recipes including ‘honey siracha bacon-wrapped onion rings’, ‘cookie dough pizza bites’ and an endless array of suggestions for the football-synonymous chicken wing.

Throwing caution to the wind when it comes to ingestion speaks to a classically American libertarian streak, the idea that every person controls their own destiny and the mumbo-jumbo of nutritional science is merely an opinion (and an annoying one at that).

And so – not that I needed any encouragement – tonight I will indulge, my cheeks sweet and spicy with buffalo sauce, my fingers salty with potato chip residue and cold with the clench of canned beer, content with the knowledge that it is Sunday night on Super Bowl and not a Monday morning.

All in the name of religious observance, naturally.

super bowl

Published on ‘Game Day’, 7 February 2016

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