Even before he came to Waterloo in 2008, Parker Milner’s interest in food stretched well beyond red sauce, alfredo, and the tasty but recurring-ad-nauseum breadsticks from Fazoli’s, which seemed to be part of every Black Hawks road trip at that time.
Milner says that as a youth hockey player, he was already encouraging his friends to be more adventurous with their pregame meals.
“I remember on hockey trips, just trying to get not only my teammates but their parents to try some of the places [my family] was eating. It was often a challenge,” he admits.
While growing up in Pittsburgh, Milner’s own taste horizons were pushed far afield from Primanti Bros. sandwiches. He credits family trips to far away destinations in Europe and South America, and the influence of his father, for giving him a different perspective on food than the typical adolescent.
“When we were going on hockey trips, my dad would find these different restaurants for us to go to. He always wanted me to try different kinds of food,” says Milner. “He had been working in New York City for a number of years and had grown more interested in their restaurant scene and been involved there.
“That really stayed with me.”
Milner was 18 during his one and only season with the Black Hawks. Waterloo won 37 games in 2008/09, with Milner in net for 20 of those victories, including three shutouts. During the four years that followed, he was a member of two NCAA National Championship teams at Boston College, including 2012 when he was named Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four.
During the rest of the 2010s, Milner played professionally in the AHL and ECHL, taking the ice for over 300 regular season and playoff games with seven different clubs. He was on rosters for teams as distant as Stockton, California, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Milner’s longest stay was with the ECHL’s Charleston-based South Carolina Stingrays.
Today he remains a professional in Charleston, although he has set aside his mask and goalie pads for a new vocation. Last October, he was named Food Editor for the local daily paper, The Post and Courier.
“It is a pretty charmed life; I feel incredibly fortunate,” says Milner about trading one dream career for another.
Although Milner was having a solid season in 2019/20, he was also contemplating life after sports. His 2.20 goals-against average ranked second in the league, and Milner had a 20-6-3 record when the season ended early due to the coronavirus.
“The more I went along in the professional hockey ranks, the more important it was to me to have something off the ice that I really cared about as well. I felt that it freed me up on the ice and just made me feel present.”
At Boston College, Milner had studied business rather than journalism, adding an extra layer of learning between the crease and the newspaper copy desk. First casually, then in more formal settings, he had begun writing about restaurants and enjoyable meals while he was still playing.
“When I got to Charleston, I applied for a job with Eater, which is a national online brand. I sent in some samples I had written for a freelance position, and I was lucky enough to have them get back to me. I just, sort of built it up organically from there.”
Milner says he also interned for Charleston Magazine and took writing classes in the years prior to his hockey retirement.
Ahead of the pandemic in early 2020, he had made a definitive step toward a future of mixing food and words, accepting a second job with the weekly Charleston City Paper.
“I had started that job parttime for about three weeks during the season, and then all of the sudden the season was over, and I was just right into it,” Milner says.
There was a lot to cover. As public health officials across the country grappled with COVID-19, restaurants were pushed to serve their customers in dramatically different ways. Considerable creativity was required to keep the doors open, especially as dine-in service came to a complete halt. In a dynamic, oceanside metro like Charleston, restaurants are a significant attraction.
Milner says residents and visitors there enjoy a range of culinary options.
“Southern cuisine definitely has its ‘heavy hitter’ dishes that people always look for: shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, fried chicken, okra soup. Those sorts of things are very popular here. But being in a big city like Charleston with lots of people who come from other big cities and other places and other countries, there’s really a nice mix of food and restaurants to try.”
As Milner sees it, his role is to try that food, share the experience and tell the stories of the people who make it. It’s not about rating what’s good or bad.
“That’s the assumption: that every food writer is a food critic, and I’m not,” says Milner, elaborating, “I’m doing feature stories, I’m going to restaurants and talking about the food, of course, but it’s more explaining what the food tastes like, where it comes from, why the chef did this, what is influencing the dishes that he’s serving, as opposed to strict reviews.”
He admits there are things in recipes he is not excited to see. Topping that list: sour cream.
“It’s a good reminder to me that even someone who likes to pride themselves on trying everything…sometimes you get a mental block. If you push through that, it’s just like in hockey: if you have a mental block about a skill or something that you can’t quite master, you just attack it head on. You start to forget that the sour cream is there, you start to forget that the skill that you’ve struggled with for so long is something that you’ve struggled with.”
As for the indelible food impressions from his time as a Black Hawk, Milner was sorry to learn that the Boardwalk Deli on East 4th Street closed some years ago. He and teammates ate scores of sandwiches there each week, with one cold cut combination – the Lee Moffie Special – continuing to bear the name of Milner’s teammate long after Moffie had moved on to the University of Michigan.
However, if Milner returned to Waterloo today, he knows he could find a sandwich that is even better.
“DeeDee VanBesien’s food was incredible every night,” he says of the billet mom he lived with. “I remember these roast beef sandwiches right at the front of my mind, and also this bread she made, called ‘friendship bread,’ that was absolutely delicious. It was something that Eddie Olczyk [Jr.] and I would horde on the road trips.”
Follow Milner on Twitter at @parkermilner_ as he seeks out memorable food for The Post and Courier.
Where Are They Now features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite, 2515 Falls Avenue in Waterloo.