Catching Up With… Todd Blackledge

University of Pittsburgh v Penn State

“I’m not a picky eater, by any stretch,” Todd Blackledge says, “but I’ve always enjoyed food.”

That’s a succinct way to explain why Blackledge ’83 is the perfect guy to write a book about football food—the regionally diverse, often unhealthy but always filling fare that helps define the game-day experience for so many college football fans. Based on the popular “Taste of the Town” segments that air during the Saturday-night broadcasts of games Blackledge works for ESPN, the book version of Taste of the Town features recipes, stories, and photos from his favorite places to eat in college towns around the country. It’s on sale now.

Blackledge, of course, needs no introduction. The starting QB on Penn State’s 1982 National Championship team and a 1983 first-round NFL draft pick, he has established himself as one of the best TV analysts in the game. We caught up with him this week to talk about his love of food, his favorite places to eat, how he stays skinny, and his first impressions of the newest Nittany Lion QB to wear No. 14.

* * *

TFL: Congrats on the book. I imagine this must have been fun to put together.

Blackledge: It really was. Doing the segment has been a blast for the first five years that we did it, and we’re doing it again this year. Writing the book was just kind of the opportunity to extend that, broaden the stories a little bit more than the 40-second piece that airs during the game. Going back over my notes, re-watching the segments, it brought back a lot of memories for me, and I think that’s why the segments have struck a chord. Food creates memories for people, whether it’s where you used to eat when you were in school, or where your dad took you the first time you went to a game. I think that’s why people relate to it.

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TFL: You write in the book that the idea came from an ESPN executive who encouraged people to come up with a sort of signature idea that you could bring to air. Did you know “Taste of the Town” would take off like it has?

Blackledge: I thought it was a good idea, but I had no idea that it would immediately be so popular. For several years before we started doing the segments, those were the sorts of places I would look to eat, so I had a pretty good catalog in my brain that I might use. I thought it would be fun.

TFL: You’ve become identified with this to some extent—you’re the guy who comes into all these great college towns and finds the iconic local spots for a great meal. I’m guessing it makes you a target for every fan, wanting to share their favorite.

Blackledge: It does, but it’s not a nuisance. I want people’s suggestions. We’re doing more this year with social media, trying to create more engagement, and I’m always willing to take suggestions. But ultimately, I’m going to check a place out and make the call. That’s why, when people ask, “Have you ever been somewhere you really didn’t like the food,” I say no. Because every place I’ve filmed on Friday, I was there on Thursday, or I’d been there before, so I knew what I was getting into.

TFL: Have you always been something of a foodie?

Blackledge: I think I’ve always kind of been that way. I’m not a picky eater by any stretch, but I’ve always enjoyed food. For some people, it’s about really large portions, but for me, it’s not “Man vs. Food.” I just enjoy different foods, different flavors.

TFL: I’ve seen you in person in recent years, and anyone who sees you on TV knows you look like you’re pretty close to your playing weight. What’s your secret? Do you take one bite, then stop eating as soon as they turn off the camera?

Blackledge: You know, I’d say that more often that not, I finish everything that’s in front of me. I kind of grew up that way—you eat what you take. So I try to. But I try to eat very sensibly most days of the week. I don’t eat that way year-round. I spend a lot of time on the treadmill, doing cardio, a little light lifting. Like a lot of people, I work out so I can eat. I just want to enjoy what I do, enjoy living.

But there are some times—one particular example you can see in the book, and I chose this because I loved the way it looks. At Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour in Miami, they have something called The Kitchen Sink, which has eight or nine scoops of ice cream. It’s brought to the table in a literal kitchen sink, and it’s designed for like four people. I ordered that with the idea that I’d have some help.

TFL: The book features restaurants in 22 towns, one of which is, of course, State College. How hard was it to narrow down the four spots you chose from your own college town?

Blackledge: It wasn’t really hard, because those places just jumped out at me. Herwig’s was a new one—when I came back to town one year, somebody told me about it. I went and tried it, and it was like, “Wow, this is really interesting.”

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As for the rest, The Diner was kind of a no-brainer. The Waffle Shop holds a lot of memories for me—that’s where I would eat with my family when they’d come up, before they would head back home to Ohio. And I could’ve gone either way with the ice cream, because I used to go to Meyer Dairy, but I went with the Creamery.

TFL: The book also includes recipes from coaches and their wives, and I know a lot of our readers will love to see the recipe for Sue Paterno’s salsa.

Blackledge: That was a recipe I got through my relationship with the family. I felt bad that we didn’t have something in there from Colleen O’Brien—my intention was to have recipes from both of them, but we weren’t able to get it in time. But I’m really glad we got something from Sue.

TFL: We won’t put you on the spot about your own college town, but other than State College, if you had to pick one meal from the dozens you’ve got in the book, which would it be?

Blackledge: You’re going to cry “homer” on this, but I’m going to go with the pizza my wife, Cherie, makes. We do pizza-and-movie nights on Fridays when it’s not football season. Those are my my favorite.

TFL: We’ll wrap this up with a football question: I know you were working a game in Texas last week, but did you have a chance to see Christian Hackenberg’s debut?

Blackledge: I didn’t see the game, but I saw a few highlights, and I looked at the numbers. I’m really happy for him. That’s a heck of a win for him. You can dissect the numbers, and I know he had a couple of interceptions, but for a true freshman to go on the road and win your first game just a few months out of high school is really impressive.

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