STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Sue Paterno, wife of the legendary Penn State football coach, may have the toughest pregame routine of all. For home games, the 69-year-old grandmother hits the ground running at 4:30 a.m.
This weekend, for instance, after the Temple vs. Penn State game on Saturday, she will be entertaining 60 guests at the Paternos' ranch-style home, serving her homemade tomato sauce and meatballs, homemade lasagna, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and homemade peach pies - as has been her tradition after each home game for the 44 years that Joe has been head coach.
Sue Paterno has cooked and cooked - and cooked some more - in a seemingly endless stream of games and guests that begins with the first kickoff in the fall and doesn't slow down until the last recruit takes a cookie for the road trip home in late winter.
She's cooked for dignitaries and donors, football players and coaches, family and friends. And every night, she cooks for the most famous man in Pennsylvania sports.
Where others might hire caterers and servers and someone to tend the bar, Paterno has done it all herself, cooking and cleaning - even sewing the tablecloths - while putting family members to work taking coats and pouring drinks.
"When we have people in our house, we want it to be from us," she says. "To make it more personal. . . . I'm a one-man show."
With her 82-year-old husband's retirement date an unanswered question, that show doesn't look like it's closing any time soon.
She sees it as part of the role she took on in becoming Mrs. Joe Paterno in 1962. "The people are fun. It's just part of life. Everything's been: 'OK, this is what we're doing. This is where we go.' "
At times, like this year with four home games in a row, it can be overwhelming, especially on top of her charitable work - Paterno is active in organizing and fund-raising for Special Olympics, the university library that bears the Paterno name, and a planned Catholic student center. She starts prepping for the next postgame party on Sunday morning: "It's a treadmill," she says.
A treadmill she runs with pain lingering after four back surgeries. She swims daily and is taped with the same therapeutic tape made famous by Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh.
Her postgame food is simple, but from scratch: During a typical week leading up to the Saturday kickoff of a home game, Paterno has roasted a bushel of sweet peppers and peeled them by hand, prepared pans of lasagna, made dozens of meatballs, breaded chicken fingers for the kids, and baked enough cookies, pies, and cheesecake to send any sweet tooth straight to the dentist.
And when the Beaver Stadium crowds spill out after the game, Paterno is hurrying home to get last-minute things into the oven before some of that crowd shows up at her doorstep. The party at the Paternos' house is just beginning.
It started years ago, when the first family of Pennsylvania football invited a few supporters of Penn State's athletic program for dinner after the games. As the couple became more involved in fund-raising for numerous university and community initiatives, the postgame fetes grew to include dozens of donors, friends and family.
"Joe invites people. It's whomever. You never know who's coming," she says, noting that even in weeks when she hasn't sent out invitations, friends still show up, and she still cooks.
As they arrive at the 1960s-style ranch just blocks from the stadium, the bar - usually manned by one of the Paterno sons - opens in the basement while the family matriarch takes charge in the kitchen she designed in 1995. It's an open room, but she's hemmed in on all sides by green and black counters that double as buffet lines as she begins to pull casseroles out of the double wall ovens and salads out of the fridge.
This weekend, after the Temple game, those counters will hold pans of timbale, a lasagna she makes with homemade crepes instead of pasta. Dessert will include five peach pies made weeks before and frozen. Her signature chocolate bit cookies - a recipe she tinkered with after her mother passed it down - are another dessert staple.
To manage everything, she relies on recipes she can cook earlier in the week and freeze. "You're not a magician. You can't do everything in one day," she says, although spending some time with this fast-talking woman might start to convince you otherwise.
She roughs out plans in the summer, reading some of the dozens of cookbooks that line her pantry shelves and noting page numbers of things she wants to first test out on her "guinea pig" husband before working into a menu.
The summer is also given to canning the 10 bushels of tomatoes she'll go through in a year. Paterno puts up four kinds of sauce, tomato soup, salsa, and jars of tomatoes and peppers that serve as a base for chili.
She has Joe to partially thank for this - pasta is on the menu at the Paterno household at least twice a week, a nod to his Italian American heritage. Her basic sauce, more of a process than a recipe, is his favorite for its plain, smooth quality - tomatoes cranked through a food mill and then cooked down with salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil, and tomato paste, and infused with garlic steeped in a tea-ball. "Joe is easy. Anything I make that's red, he likes."
It was not a cuisine the Pennsylvania German Sue Pohland had in her repertoire when she met her future husband. In fact, she says she could barely cook at all.
"Steaks and lobster were my two specialties. We couldn't afford them. I did know how to make cookies, because that's what I cared about," she says. Her penchant for chocolate is well-known, and she's the kind of grandma to her 17 grandkids who always has a cookie jar full of homemade goodies.
She credits cookbooks - her dilapidated Betty Crocker is her favorite - with teaching her to cook the Italian food her husband prefers, but not before she swayed him with some German standbys - pork and sauerkraut, although they have to eat them after New Year's Day most years because of bowl-game travel.
"Sauerkraut's fun," she says. Her brother makes the family's supply now, but crocks of it were often fermenting in her grandparents' basement. "We'd go in and get handfuls of sauerkraut. But then grandma's freezer was down there, and there were always Eskimo Pies in there, and so we'd eat the sauerkraut, get the Eskimo Pie and go outside. I know, I think about it now, and I thought, 'Boy, that was good. But, oh that is sort of weird.' "
Her love of food and family is evident as she recounts story after story in which the two are main characters: the year they didn't eat turkey at Thanksgiving because her four oldest children named the bird Thomas Jeffrey before he went into the roaster, generating shrieks of despair when she later wielded a knife above him.
Or the bowl of split pea soup she served over sauerkraut (is there nothing this woman will not eat with sauerkraut?) to her mother-in-law just a month into her marriage that elicited first disgust and then delight. "Try it," she urges. "It's out of this world."
Or the time Joe - who can't cook - hosted a dinner party while she was in a wheelchair with a broken leg. The menu: take-out from Olive Garden. "Everybody got what they wanted," she says. "And there was minimal cleanup."
The laughter ends with food stories. She'll be the first to tell you that the postgame dinners and the recruitment-weekend dessert parties are a lot of work for one woman, but the people gathered around her table and their love of the university are worth it.
"It's tiring. But the people are all nice, and we've met a lot of memorable people who are supporters of Penn State, and if we're in that process and they're helping Penn State, then that's the part I love."
Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 whole, bone-in chicken breast
1/2 small onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon basil
2 cans (35 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes with paste
For the meatballs:
1/2 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Dash garlic salt
Pepper to taste
1 slice bread, made into crumbs
3 sprigs parsley, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
For the filling:
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/4 pound mozzarella
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
2 slices prosciutto, diced (optional, and reserve for assembly)
For the crepes:
5 large eggs
1 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1. For the sauce, heat oil in pan. Add chicken and saute until brown. Add onion and cook until soft, but not brown. Add salt and pepper. Add wine and cook until it evaporates. Add the remaining ingredients and salt to taste. Simmer for 90 minutes. Remove chicken, cut into cubes and set aside.
2. For the meatballs, mix all ingredients except oil together until well mixed. Form into meatballs the size of chickpeas. Fry in oil, removing with slotted spoon when brown. Add to the tomato sauce and simmer 30 minutes.
3. For the filling, beat ricotta and egg with electric mixer until smooth. Add mozzarella, parsley, and Parmesan to ricotta mixture.
4. When ready to assemble, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread a shallow, 2-quart casserole (do not use glass) with a thin layer of sauce. Line the pan with crepes (see note), as you would for a pie, overhanging the edges. Place half the chicken pieces over the crepes, cover with a thin layer of sauce and half the meatballs. Cover with more crepes. Spread crepes with half of the cheese mixture and spoon over more sauce. Cover again with crepes. Layer prosciutto, if using, over the crepes, and then more sauce. Cover with crepes. Repeat the layers again - the remaining chicken, more sauce, the remaining meatballs, and cover with crepes. Layer the remaining cheese, more sauce and the last crepes to cover everything. Tuck the overhanging crepes from the bottom layer into the casserole dish, and cover everything with any remaining sauce. Bake for 30 minutes.
Note: To make crepes: Beat eggs. Add water and salt and mix. Add flour in small amounts, mixing between additions. Add oil and combine. Lightly grease a 6-inch frying pan and heat to medium-high. Remove pan from heat, place 3 or 4 tablespoons of the batter in the center, and quickly spread it over the bottom. Return the pan to the stove until the edges of the crepe rise slightly away from the pan. Do not brown. Turn crepe over for a second and remove. Continue with rest of batter.
Per serving (based on 8): 558 calories, 29 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 265 milligrams cholesterol, 555 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Butter and Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds fresh, ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped, or 3 cups canned whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice, coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons butter
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put all ingredients, except cheese, in a saucepan and simmer over a low heat until the tomatoes have reduced and separated from the butter, about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the pan.
2. Remove from the heat and set aside, discarding the onion halves.
3. Serve over ravioli.
Per serving: 227 calories, 4 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 211 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound pork
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 large onion, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 slices bread, made into crumbs
1 cup evaporated milk
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.
3. Roll into balls. Place in an ovenproof dish and cover with tomato sauce. Bake in a 350-degree oven covered with foil for about an hour. Discard the sauce.
3. Meatballs can be frozen at this point. Reheat in a 350-degree oven with fresh sauce over them. If eating right away, replace the sauce before serving.
Per serving: 452 calories, 27 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 152 milligrams cholesterol, 254 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.