In a New Year's Day battle of soccer and sausage, it's St. Louis vs. Metro East in the Chorizo Bowl
While many St. Louisans ring in the New Year with the pop of a champagne bottle and the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," generations of Hispanics in the region have turned to another pairing to mark new beginnings: soccer and sausage.
The tradition began New Year’s Day 1947 — the very first Chorizo Bowl.
The friendly cookout and soccer match between residents of south St. Louis and Fairmont City has taken place the afternoon of every Jan. 1 for nearly 75 years. (2020's event was canceled due to the pandemic.)
“It’s a very important day around here,” said Tom Pelizzaro, the treasurer and a past president of the St. Louis Spanish Society, located in the city’s Carondelet neighborhood. “Rain, shine, snow, sleet — whatever. There’s a game that’s on New Year’s Day, 1 o’clock.”
The Chorizo Bowl is more than just a game. It's a cultural cornerstone that has brought pride and unity to the Hispanic communities in St. Louis and the Metro East who have seen exponential growth in their community’s population over the last century.
“It’s about the people who care about each other,” said Ty Keough, a St. Louis soccer legend who played for the U.S. Men’s National Team from 1979-80. He played on the south city team in numerous Chorizo Bowls alongside his father, Harry.
While many of the founders of the Spanish Society who started the Chorizo Bowl tradition have died, Keough said their mission to their community is still felt to this day. “You really look back and realize that those guys really put in the time,” he said. “They wanted to see the youth of their neighborhood really thrive.”
For Chorizo Bowl participants, the game is a way to reconnect to their roots.
“It became about friends from my neighborhood,” said Keough, who grew up down the road from the Spanish Society. “You know, guys that we played in the mid to late seventies went off and started families and got jobs. Then we’d start coming back just to play a little bit, but mostly to be a part of the experience.”
An ‘unknown’ diaspora
Pelizzaro said the Chorizo Bowl tradition began in 1947 when Spanish immigrants from south St. Louis began meeting with those residing in the Metro East to share common interests from their distant home.
Many of the players then were members of the Spanish Society. Pelizarro said many of them joined the club after immigrating from Spain and the Principality of Asturias, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain.
While the wave of Spanish immigrants moving to the United States in the 1900s wasn’t as large as those from some other European ethnic groups, researchers say the migration was still notable.
James Fernández, a Spanish and Portuguese professor at New York University, and Luis Argeo, a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Gijón, Asturias, Spain, detailed their research about Spanish immigration in their book "Invisible Immigrants: Spaniards in the U.S. (1868-1945)."
“This is an episode of immigration history in the U.S. which is pretty much unknown,” Fernández said during a 2016 interview with St. Louis on the Air. “Compared to Italians and Irish and Germans, the numbers of Spaniards who came here in this time period are pretty small — it is tens of thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or even millions.”
By 1920, there were roughly 300 Asturians residing in the Carondelet neighborhood, said local author and historian NiNi Harris. The majority of them had immigrated to the St. Louis region to work in zinc smelting facilities after World War I.
The labor was dangerous, “but they were very happy to have the work,” Harris said, referencing conversations she had with descendants of the Asturian immigrants years ago.
Fairmont City and East St. Louis also saw an influx of Spanish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The immigrants were drawn to the American Zinc Plant that opened in 1913, according to historians. It discontinued operations in 1967.
Despite the zinc smelting facility's closure, the largely immigrant village continued to see exponential growth of its Hispanic population. “That’s exactly what happened even back in 1920,” said Mary Migalla, the unofficial village historian, during a recent interview. “Between ’20 and ’30 [the Latino population] doubled.”
These days, there are not as many Asturian descendants participating in the matchup due to an aging population. Still, the friendly game of pick-up soccer once held between the towering trees of Carondelet Park in south St. Louis and the open fields of Fairmont City’s Granby Park has remained with the help of a growing Hispanic community in the region.
Keough said he began to notice more players with Mexican heritage participating in the Chorizo Bowl while he was in college. “It was taking on more of a Mexican cultural flavor, but they still love the sport of soccer, so it didn’t change the rivalry — if anything, it added to the rivalry.”
The last three meetings between the teams have resulted in ties, but both teams admit the St. Louis delegation usually has the edge.
“There were people who played in the Chorizo Bowl who had strong ties to the area colleges ... and they would bring in ringers. But again, this is something that we expected,” said Charlie “Tuna” Suarez, a 74-year-old longtime resident of Fairmont City. “Sure, there was a pride in winning and hoping to win, but the main focus was always getting together, enjoying chorizo and the camaraderie this engenders.”
For the residents of Fairmont City, the annual scrimmage and cookout is a shared experience for those who grew up in the village. Suarez’s maternal grandparents were from Mexico and lived in the Fairmont City, and his paternal grandparents were from Asturias but died when he was young.
“Both the soccer and chorizo eating is something that I grew up with, it’s something the Spanish residents and their descendants grew up with,” he said. “It’s important that I maintain this hook, that I maintain this tradition. I’ve passed it to all my kids, [including] my son who’s the mayor here in Fairmont City.”
Participants of the game throughout the years note there isn’t much, if any, preparation that goes into the soccer side of the game other than “maybe a few cervezas before the game,” Pelizzaro said, but “you will see an amazing, talented soccer game.”
Culture in the kitchen
The rivalry and camaraderie among soccer devotees in Fairmont City and south St. Louis bleeds into the kitchen. The chorizo they share is made with recipes passed down over generations — connecting those in the Midwest with their ancestors from a faraway land.
Suarez orchestrates about a half-dozen men, most in their late 60s or early 70s, in the Fairmont City Community Center’s kitchen on a Tuesday morning the week before Christmas.
“Add more, too light,” he calls out to Mike Albertina, 73, of Belleville, while meat grinders and mixers whir in the background. Albertina responds by spooning a mound of pimenton ahumado, or smoked paprika, from a red tin into a churning steel bin filled with several pounds of ground meat.
“We claim we’ve got the best-tasting chorizo,” Suarez said. “St. Louis folks will say ‘ours is better,’ but it’s all friendly.”
Pelizzaro, the St. Louis Spanish Society treasurer, affirms the bias: St. Louis' chorizo is better.
“The St. Louis [side] would say that we make the best chorizo and we will stand by that,” he said. “Of course we love ours, they love theirs. I’ve actually purchased some from the east side as well and my thumb's up to them. But I still think we have the finer recipe.”
Over the years, the side that hosts the soccer match generally provides the chorizo that friends, family and neighbors will eventually eat accompanied by a frosty mug of beer.
Suarez said he and his group expect to make over 300 pounds of chorizo this year to feed the Chorizo Bowl-goers, but also to help support community programs such as area youth sports leagues. Despite the hours of work ahead of the game, Suarez said his small part in the tradition is a labor of love.
“To me, this is something that’s part of our community,” he said. “We’re preserving Spanish culture, or Asturiano culture — one chorizo at a time.”
The 2022 Chorizo Bowl is set to be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 1 at St. Mary’s High School, 4701 S. Grand Blvd. in south St. Louis. The match is free and open to the public.