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Cardinals-Themed Cookouts & How to Watch a Losing Team

Stories, recipes, and how to make this losing season more fun.

1998. The summer after my sophomore year in college. I tried to make the most of my college summers, knowing that life and responsibility would soon catch up to me. I already wrote about ’97 – my summer without baseball in Yellowstone. I already had plans to stay at school in ’99 to do an undergrad research project. I knew my parents would disown me if I didn’t spend the summer of ’98 at home. Plus, there was this girl that I was chasing.

So, I moved into my parent’s basement in Springfield, MO, and started job hunting. My sister worked as a waitress at Ebbets Field, a popular, Brooklyn Dodgers-themed pub and grill just off the Missouri State University campus. I had designs on something a little more 9-5, but when she got me on as a cook without even having to apply, I really couldn’t turn it down.

So, I spent that summer hovering over a grill, sweating away as many calories as I consumed (cooks ate for free), cooking food I didn’t really know how to cook, and listening to the Cardinals.

Every game, every day was on the radio in the kitchen at Ebbets. Every game, every day a crowd gathered, filling the bar to eat and drink and watch the Cardinals on the TVs scattered around the building.

If you were there that summer – and I guarantee that many Viva El Birdos readers ate at Ebbets in ’98 – I’m sorry the food sucked. I said I spent that summer learning how to cook… which means I spent most of the summer not really knowing what I was doing. But you were there for the atmosphere, anyway, so I’m sure you didn’t notice.

The Cardinals were not good that season. Sure, McGwire was a huge attraction and his homerun barrage was epic. Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford were brilliant. But man was that pitching staff a nightmare. Kent Mercker, with his ERA over 5, led the team in starts. The rotation featured, at various points in the season, Juan Acevedo, Manny Aybar, Mark Petkovsek, and Cliff Politte.

When I started at Ebbets in early May, the Cardinals were at a high point of 17-13. They were 62-71 in late August when I loaded up my Pontiac Grand Prix for Kirksville and Truman State University. That’s three months of 45-58 ball, a .437 winning percentage, that I devotedly and deliberately consumed.

And I enjoyed it. Because that was what summer was to me. An overcooked burger, fries, wings, and, for (20-year-old) me a cold coke, while listening to both Bucks and Mike Shannon call a baseball game.

In the 1990s I learned how to watch bad Cardinals baseball and still enjoy it. That’s what I’m doing this season. The Cardinals are bad. They’re not likely to be good anytime soon. A three-month stretch of .437 winning % seems possible.

I’m still having fun, eating way too much grilled food, watching games, not taking it too seriously, and enjoying what summer is all about.

I’m still putting all those skills learned at a summer standing over a grill to practical use – I can still make a bad burger with the best of them. And I’ve learned how to dress up those bad burgers to make them a little more interesting.

Yes, this is one of those recipe blog posts where you have to read a 1000 word backstory before you get to the three-step process to make tuna salad.

One of the things Ebbets did was build burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches around legendary Brooklyn Dodger players. Some of these are still on the menu today. The (Leo) Durocher, for example, was a burger with grilled mushrooms and provolone. The Duke (Snider) was a bacon cheeseburger.

Since then, I’ve adapted the fare from Ebbets to make creative menus for when that same gal I was chasing in ‘98 and I host our neighbors and friends for cookouts and Cardinals games, trying to make the food fit the personality or playing style of the monikered player. For example…

THE KISSELL – the Fundamental Cheeseburger

There is nothing more fundamental than a well-crafted cheeseburger. Sure, you can use those pre-formed frozen patties from Sams, if you hate your soul. But George Kissell was about doing things the right way.

Make a run to the local grocery store and get some fresh ground beef, at least 80-20 in fat content. Divide that into 1/3 lb. sections. Then wash your hands and pour a little cooking oil on them. Roll the ground beef into a smooth ball, about the size of a baseball, and press it out on a cutting board until it’s a little bigger than your bun. Don’t leave it too thick and make sure it is wide enough. You want it to cook down to fit the bun perfectly.

Also, don’t be an idiot and put things into your patty. That’s not what the Kissell is about.

Press your thumb into the middle of your patty to make a dimple. This keeps it from forming a mound of fatty, greasy gunk in the center of your burger.

Fire up the grill pretty high. Salt and pepper your burger and toss them on.

Then, for the love of a well-placed hit the other way, leave it alone. Don’t flip it until you start to see gray coloring travel up the side of the burger. Turn it once. Do not poke it, cut it, open it, flop it, or mess around with it. One turn and one turn only.

Don’t touch it again until an internal thermometer reads 145 degrees. I can’t emphasize this part enough. The more you mess with your burger, the more you let all that juicy goodness escape from the nice crusty char the grill is giving the fatty beef. And if you use a thermometer, then you don’t have to cut or poke or squash at the meat to test its doneness.

At 145 you’re around rare. I go to at least 155 for family and friends. Then I drape it in my cheese of choice – honestly, American is fine for a burger. I often turn off the grill and shut the lid at this point. You’ll get an extra 5 degrees or so of cooking and your cheese will melt without turning into a lava-like liquid.

Serve it directly from the grill onto the bottom bun. The more you handle it, the more juice you lose. From there, anything goes. The essentials are right, so if you’re a ketchup and mustard man, or a Ron Swanson plain, you’re good to go.

Variations on the Kissell:

The Holliday – You’ve gotta do this Oklahoma boy right! Take a Kissel and top it with an onion ring, BBQ sauce, and thick-cut bacon. Otherwise known as a cowboy burger.

The Gibson – High heat! Saute some jalapenos in melted butter, cover those in pepper jack, and you’ve got a burger that will come at your guests high and tight.

The Stan – throw out your ground beef and make your patty from a higher fat-content premium steak (ribeye, for example) that you’ve cut into chunks and then finely ground in a cold food processor and formed into a patty. Upgrade all your other ingredients to the best you can and you end up with a burger that will earn its place in the grilling Hall of Fame.

THE ’85 – an STL-style Pork Steak covered in KC-style Pulled Pork

On to pork! In this case, a St Louis staple – the pork steak. Pork steaks are a pork butt cut into sections and grilled. Slather that puppy in Maul’s and you have the classic StL trash-BBQ dinner. It’s delicious. I love them.

Across the state, they cook pork butts the right way, whole, and slow-smoked for buttery, smoky, BBQ’y heaven.

What I’m suggesting here is a bit of both. Grab some thick-cut pork steaks at the grocery store. Cut them in half, with the boneless end about the size of a large hamburger bun. Set that aside for now.

Take the bone-in portion and sprinkle liberally with your favorite smoking rub. Throw the bone-in steak on a smoker at around 250 degrees with some hardwood – I like apple with some hickory mixed in – until it reaches an internal temp of 195 degrees. It should take several hours. If you don’t have a smoker you can do this right on a grill. Just throw wood chips into a foil pouch with some holes punched in it. Set the pouch on top of a burner on a grill. Light it up and get the wood smoking. Keep the temp in the grill low and let the smoke do its thing. Use a grill thermometer to monitor the temp inside your makeshift smoker. Anything between 225-275 is ok for this.

When the bone-in portions are done, pull them from heat, cover them, and let them contemplate their existence while you get your grill back up to cooking temp. Salt and pepper the boneless portion of your pork steaks and grill over medium heat. Slather them with the BBQ sauce of your choice about 10 degrees before your desired temperature. 145 would be medium — they’ll be a little pink and maybe a little chewy. 160’ish is fork and knife cutting; not ideal for a sandwich but you can do it. I would recommend going longer — lower the grill temp and take them to 185. They’ll still hold together but will be “grandpa has dentures” soft to the bite.

While those are finishing, take the bone-in portions and shred the meat with two forks. This should give you a bun-sized portion of finely chopped pulled pork. Sprinkle that with some rub but leave off the BBQ sauce. To make the sandwich, grill your buns, place the BBQ-soaked pork steak, and top that with a heaping pile of the pulled pork. Finish with coleslaw or pickles and raw onions. Serve with a stack of napkins and tell everyone this was your own recipe.

Variations on the ’85:

The Herzog: An ’85 with KC’s best – burnt ends! After it sits, cut the smoked, bone-in section of pork steak into cubes, slather with BBQ sauce mixed with rub and honey or a little brown sugar. You can also throw in some chicken broth. Cook in a pan over medium-high heat. You end up with crispy, caramelized pork “burnt ends” – not exactly the real thing, but the concept is there. Top your pork steak with those and, well, live that high life, my friend.

The Chris Carpenter: You can also replace the pulled pork with “fall-off-the-bone” ribs. Rub and smoke StL style spareribs according to the 3-2-1 method. Three hours uncovered at 230-250. Then 2 hours wrapped in foil. Then 1 more hour uncovered. You can pull that rib bone out Chris Carpenter style, chop up the rib meat, and serve on your pork steak for a true St Louis original.

THE YADI – Caribbean-style Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Beef and pork are covered. On to chicken! At Ebbets we served butterflied and grilled chicken breasts. These days, you can buy those, or some “trimmed and ready” breasts at most supermarkets. You can also use boneless thighs.

Lots of ways to go here, but for this one, I recommend some Caribbean jerk seasoning – the dry mix or the wet stuff. Cover the chicken in seasoning and fire up the grill. Get a meat thermometer – a must for chicken. Grill until it’s starting to turn white on the sides and top. Then, like your burger, give it one flip and monitor its temp until you get to around 145.

Have some bacon ready to go – either pre-cooked or stuff you pre-cooked from fresh – and slices of pineapple. Throw both on the grill to heat up and add some nice grill marks.

When the chicken reaches 160, top it with the bacon and pineapple slice, then “catch” it all with a slice of a mild white cheese – provolone is great. Monterey jack works really well, too. Turn off the grill and close the lid.

When the cheese is melted, you’re probably up to 165 internal and you are ready to go. To finish it right, I recommend taking some BBQ sauce and mixing in pineapple and lime juice, and honey. Simmer that down and slather it on grilled and buttered buns. That’s a platinum-level grilled chicken sandwich.

Variations on the Yadi:

The Matt Carpenter – lose the bun for the non-carb eaters out there. Keep the rest and top with chunky salsa. You can make this yourself from roma tomatoes, jalapenos, lime juice, cilantro, and onions in a food processor. Pulse to a pico consistency. Serve on salad.

The Ozzie – replace the jerk seasoning with some cajun seasoning. Lose the pineapple and add extra bacon. Cover all of that with a hefty portion of shredded cheddar. It will melt into a “gold glove” of deliciousness. Cut some wood skewers and serve the sandwich so it looks like it’s doing a backflip… Ok, no, don’t do that.

Maybe that will give you some ideas to spice up your summer gatherings in what is a pretty bland Cardinals season. Share your own recipes and tips in the comments. I’m no expert in any of this. I’m just a guy with a grill and a few months of experience in a not-very-professional kitchen, so I would love to hear your tips, too.

And if you were at Ebbets in the summer of ’98, give me a shout out!