The Taste Of The NFL is more than just an opportunity to eat great local food. It's for a tremendous cause.
With Freestore Foodbank as a partner, the event raises money to feed hungry children and families in the community and across the country. This year, in event in Cincinnati raised about $135,000, enough to fund over 400,000 meals in Cincinnati for those who need them. But, it is still a gathering of delectable cuisines from around greater Cincinnati, as well as Bengals players from the pas and present.
We have grown accustomed to comparing players coming out of college to current players in the league, and doing the same for current players in the league to players of the past.
But, most of those comparisons are either forced or concluded for lazy reasons and are not that interesting to digest.
What if we compared the players to something else entirely, say for example, food?
I got the chance to attend this year's Taste Of The NFL in Cincinnati and tried almost a dozen different plates of food. To describe them to the best of my ability, I compared each one to a current Bengals player for your consideration. Let's begin:
Peanut butter and chocolate brownie, Bouquet Restaurant: Geno Atkins
My first bite of the night was a brownie, and it was delicious. It was also not a traditional brownie. It was composed almost entirely of peanut butter, with some mixture of chocolate here and there, but the base was pretty clearly peanut butter.
A brownie is a formula you don’t typically deviate from, but the combo of peanut butter and chocolate has shown to be pretty profitable in history so, maybe some risks aren’t that risky.
You could say Geno Atkins was the first of the new wave of ”undersized” interior pass-rushers. A decade after the likes of John Randle and Warren Sapp wrecked the middle of pockets everywhere, Atkins fell all the way to the fourth round because he was deemed too short and too light to be a three-down player.
Atkins’ success made the league think twice about what an under tackle should look like,
just like this brownie would make Colorado bakeries contemplate what kind of brownie they should put their cannabis in.
Lobster mac and cheese, Eddie Merlot’s: Jessie Bates III
It’s hard to mess up Mac and Cheese. If you’re a college student like me who just wants microwavable kraft easy mac, it won’t let you down. If you want to go full thanksgiving Andy Reid and put five different cheeses in your casserole, I‘m sure you won't be constipated for too long.
Lobster meat in mac and cheese is not a new phenomenon, and it certainly enhances the dish and is a welcomed surprise to your already established pallet. That’s essentially what Jessie Bates is in this Bengals secondary.
George Iloka and Shawn Williams make a solid tandem at both safety spots, but Bates brings a welcomed range and instinctual aptitude at the position and that complements and diversifies Iloka and Williams’ strengths.
Duck Bruschetta, The Presidents Room: Carl Lawson
Sometimes the best food isn’t always the biggest. When I was in China for about a month this May, I noticed duck was a common cuisine in multiple parts of the country. I never had duck before, but I enjoyed it every time I ate it.
This mix of sliced duck and sweet bruschetta on top of a petite slice of sourdough was surprisingly very tasteful, despite the unique mix that I wouldn’t think to try.
Carl Lawson brings a pass-rushing presence to the Bengals defense despite his smaller stature that the Bengals typically avoided in young edge rushers. His success in just one season has (hopefully) changed the Bengals perception on how much size matters at the position.
Ribs, Montgomery Inn: Tyler Eifert
The easiest comparison in my opinion on this list. Montgomery Inn ribs are a favorite of mine and most people from the Queen City, and they're not like the ribs you'd find in the south.
Truthfully, it’s the sauce that makes any slab of ribs worthwhile and Montgomery Inn’s barbecue sauce is what separates it from other barbecue in Cincinnati. Eifert’s dominance in the red zone in the Bengals offense is what separates him from other pass-catchers on the roster, and puts him with other top tier tight ends around the league.
The meat itself is not too shabby, and like Eifert, it falls off the bone.
Penne bolognese, Via Vite: Kevin Huber
As the great-grandson of Italian and Sicilian immigrants, I’ve had more pasta in my short life than you can imagine. My Sicilian grandmother would make the best ravioli you’ve ever eaten. Good pasta dishes are always going to remind me of my upbringing and my youth.
Part of that youth was also growing up the son of a University of Cincinnati graduate and following the Bearcats as early as possible. When Kevin Huber, who grew up in Cincinnati, and went to college in Cincinnati was drafted by Cincinnati, I became more excited than anyone should be about a fifth-round selection of a punter.
But, I didn’t follow draft prospects at all back then, and he played for my college team, and I would get to continue watching him every week for now 10 years running. Like penne, Huber is consistently solid at what he does and generally underrated among his peers.
Bacon wrapped shrimp, Cincinnati Cooks Catering: A.J. Green
The Surf n’ Turf is typically composed of a fine steak and fish, but how are you gonna notice shrimp wrapped in bacon and not be intrigued. And did it taste good? Hell yeah it did.
A.J. Green was just about the most sure thing the Bengals have drafted in the past 20 years. He dominated the SEC at Georgia, he has incredible size and contortionist-like athletic ability and elite ball skills and hands.
There was no doubt that Green was going to become one of the best in the league, just like I had no doubt that tiny crustacean wrapped in crispy bacon was going to be flames.
Brownie cupcake, Jags Steakhouse: Giovani Bernard
Don’t mistake this as me equivalating Bernard to Kevin Durant. Get that out of your head now.
You’re probably thinking: ’”John, you had a chance to get a slice of tender filet from a nice steakhouse and you chose to get a cupcake?”.
I did, because I know a steakhouse probably has good steak. Desert, on the other hand, is a variable. It’s likely delicious, but you don’t go to the place for their desert. It’s a bonus.
Bernard is a smaller back and does the things you’d expect a change of pace back to do well, but he also has the traits and skills that a traditional three-down back has. He can pass protect at a high level for his size, he can run between the tackles and get yards after contact with power. Those skills are a bonus to who he is and increases his value to the offense.
Black truffle mac and cheese, Chef Bambina Culinary Team: Joe Mixon
Topping the lobster mac and cheese, I discovered what was probably the best dish of my evening. Cinnamon bread pudding with bourbon caramel on top of pasta integrated with black truffle. It looked as aesthetically pleasing as it sounds, and tasted even better.
Joe Mixon has a case for being the best “prototype“ athlete the Bengals have on their roster. He’s got the size at 6-1 230, and he’s got the speed and quickness of a back 20 pounds lighter than that. He also maximizes that athleticism with exceptional vision and soft hands as a receiver. Mixon looks the part and has the talent to match that, much like this interpretation of mac and cheese.
Bengal Braised Beef Short Ribs, Aramark: Nick Vigil
This one was pretty tough, partly because I’m not sure what half the composition of this dish was. The meat was pretty clearly meat, but everything else was unknown to my tastebuds. Carrot rissoto and manchego cheese mixed with varied greens complimented very tender pork, but am I exactly sure what any of that is? No.
That’s more or less the current evaluation of Nick Vigil. After two years, we've seen a good amount of him at SAM linebacker, but have we seen the best or worst of who he is? We don‘t know. He's still got tons of room to improve in playing within his fits and taking on second-level blockers, but there’s some good in that mess as well, and that can’t be ignored completely.