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Spotlight Iowa City: The legend of the turkey legs

BY JORDAN FRIES | NOVEMBER 20, 2009 7:21 AM

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Hard-core Hawkeye tailgaters have met Chuck Ford — they just may not know it.

He’s the booming voice on the megaphone, harassing passersby, sitting atop his 4-foot stool, and watching the early morning tailgate scene unfold.

“Get your Big Ass Turkey legs. Get ’em while they’re hot,” Ford shouts as Hawkeye fans shuffle past his tent. “You got the big ass, I got the turkey leg.”

Nobody is immune from the playful jabs, Ford said.

By 6 a.m., Ford, the beloved baron of the “Big Ass Turkey Leg,” is busy erecting a tent and watching his 5-cook crew fire up the charcoal grill. By 9 a.m., the Melrose Avenue tailgating celebrity is “in character,” ready for the streams of Black and Gold faithful flocking toward the stadium gates — always walking right past him.

Ford — one of roughly 30 game-day vendors — has been serving his famous turkey legs for 13 years. It takes him and his crew nearly two hours to slowly roast all the piles of meat.

After the 67-year-old slathers the first batch of turkey legs with barbecue sauce, Ford clutches his megaphone and begins to work as smoke billows from the meat.

“I love bantering with all of the fans. These people are my family,” Ford said. “I inherited them all. I especially love the kids; I make a lot of little buddies this way.”

The fans are happy to return the favor.

Steve Andrews, a 1971 UI graduate and now a judge in Houston, said his game-day experience just wouldn’t be the same without Ford, who claims to know 90 percent of his patrons and “all of the women.”

“Chuck Ford is undeniably the pulse of the city,” said Andrews, who comes back for two or three games a year. “He’s an old-fashioned character who chats with everyone, and he always gives me an update on what’s occurring at the UI. Seeing him barking on that microphone, getting people tuned up, really adds to the Kinnick atmosphere.”

It’s that love for the people that makes Ford so popular, according to Dewy Stewart, who has been cooking the turkey legs with Ford since 1996. Stewart, who always brings wife Sandy and their sons, Josh and Luke, (they man the grill), said he wouldn’t change a thing about his fall Saturdays.

“We just create a fun atmosphere, with music, free margaritas, and all of the tourists excited to see us,” he said, taking a break from roasting. “Nobody has as much fun as we do, and that’s good, because there’s no money in this.”

The pair is not even likely to break even on any given Saturday. But on a busy day — and with a big rival team in town — they might make about $100 if they can sell about $400 worth of turkey legs.

Most guests just come to talk or joke around, Stewart said.

“The crux of the whole thing is the fun itself with the fans,” Ford said, pointing toward one of his prized $8 slabs of meat. “The turkey leg is just part of the presentation. If I had it any better, there’d be two of me.”

After the game clock shifts to zero, and as Hawkeye fans begin to file from the stadium gates, Ford remains in his customary stool. Though the contest is over, Ford is still having fun. Just listen for the sound of his megaphone.

“Ding. Turkey legs are done.”


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