It's no secret that food and football belong together, but according to the self-appointed Commissioner of Tailgating, Joe Cahn, who founded Tailgating.com, your buddy's killer Buffalo wings aren't the only reason to pack up the portable grill this weekend. "A tailgate party is like an old-fashioned community social," he says. "Every weekend in the parking lots, people get a sense of community that is lost in this country."
Game-Day Grub and Gear: Tailgating recipes and tips, plus our favorite equipment, cookbooks, and beer!
Cahn sold his New Orleans School of Cooking in 1998 to purchase a motor home, score some corporate sponsorships, and travel from coast to coast, keeping tabs on America's best parking lot parties. "Just think about it," he says, sounding more like a sociology professor than a football fan, "when a stranger comes up to you in a city park and says hello, you worry that he wants to steal your money. When the same guy comes up to you at a tailgate, you hand him a hot dog."
The guy's got a point, and in the past ten years, tailgating has blossomed into an American institution. Even for fanatical fans, it's more than just a pit stop before the game. "We always fire opposing fans a good bit of boos and catcalls," says Cincinnati Bengals aficionado Jason Boberschmidt, "but we also welcome them to enjoy our tailgate with us. As far as we're concerned, it's much more than just a bite to eat before the game; it's an experience in its own right."
Over time, tailgaters have gotten increasingly serious about their pregame eats -- so it's no surprise that bookstores are stocking their shelves with an array of tailgating cookbooks. Our favorite comes from Bob Sloan, author of The Tailgating Cookbook, complete with a pregame checklist and tales of tailgating memories. Sloan offers the basics, such as brats and hoagies, as well as big-flavored innovations, like Grilled Leg of Lamb Jamaican Style, Southwestern-Style Baby Back Ribs, and Spicy Skirt Steak.
Tailgating Across America
And food isn't the only thing tailgaters are getting serious about. The community-minded among them turn their weekend get-togethers into fundraising events, and the Commissioner himself convinced one of his sponsors, Campbell's, to donate one can of soup to the victims of Hurricane Katrina for every mile he drives.
Of course, tailgating buses and vans also get more extreme with every season. A group of eight Philadelphia Eagles fans roll to each game in their EagleMobile, a once-characterless RV that they converted into a supercustomized tailgating machine. Their Web site, TheEagleMobile.com, offers before and after shots, a photo of the priest who christened the vehicle, and a picture of the toilet bowl, which bears a Dallas Cowboys logo beneath the waterline.
Despite their team fervor, most fans welcome first-timers to their tailgates with open arms. "People don't have to like football to come out," Cahn promises. "It's just an excuse to get together. I'm convinced if Norman Rockwell were alive today, he'd be painting scenes from the parking lot of policemen, firefighters, collegians, and little kids, all standing around a grill and sharing their food."
Take heed, football fans, and bring your favorite illustrator to the next tailgate you attend -- this slice of American life is ready for its close-up.
Tips from the Parking Lot
Champion tailgaters share their hard-earned pregame (and postgame) wisdom
"The only way to truly enjoy a tailgate party is to get there four to five hours prior to kickoff. Otherwise, you will be stuck in traffic looking for a place to park. Arriving early allows you to set up your tailgate, prepare your meals, and enjoy plenty of beverages." -- Jake and Justin O'Neal, Da-Oneals.com
"The best tailgate food is easy to eat while on your feet. Chicken wings and meatballs are a staple at our tailgate. Prepare the food before the game and then reheat it on your grill, because no one likes to wait for hours while you cook." -- CoolJJ, from RoachII.com
"Use two coolers -- one for drinks and ready-to-eat foods, and one for raw meats. Pack foods in reverse order so that the last ones packed will be the first ones used." -- John and Sue Sroka, RamsTailgating.com
"A vacuum sealer is a must-have for the serious tailgater. Cut a few bags the length of the cooler, fill with water, seal, and freeze. On game day, you can layer your food in between the ice bags. As they start to melt down, the cooler will remain a dry and clean tailgating machine. And you can reuse the ice bags over and over." -- Tim Shanley, Da-Bus.com
"Keeping warm is all about clothing. You need to check the weather and dress properly. That being said, we have been to Lambeau Field in Green Bay when the temp was -15°F. We put fireplace logs in our grill after we cooked so we could huddle around it." -- Jake and Justin O'Neal, Da-Oneals.com
"Keeping warm is a state of mind. At the NFC Championship game last year, we tailgated in a 17-degree windchill. We used a gas chimney-style heater to provide some warmth, but most of it comes from the energy of our fellow fans." -- Ed Callahan (a.k.a. Big Ed from the Northeast), TheEagleMobile.com
"When you're at an away game, always offer an exchange; one of your local beers for one from a local tailgater. This serves as good tailgating ambassadorship and usually diffuses any animosity that may be held against you for being an outsider. Remember, you are at somebody else's house and must respect their turf!" -- Marcus "Mookie" Anderson , VikingsTailgate.com
"Beer is the drink of choice at every party, but we have taken this to the next level. We make five-gallon tanks of mixed drinks, such as mai tais or Bloody Marys, as well as Jell-O shots with Everclear, a grain alcohol (and blueberry and peach Jell-O for Chicago Bears colors)." -- Jake and Justin O'Neal, Da-Oneals.com
"For a really good tailgate, you've got to have some good tunes. We power a 500-watt home amplifier and five-disc changer with two Xantrex portable generators and two deep-cycle marine batteries. We can run the stereo at top volume for about nine hours on a charge." -- Jason Boberschmidt, Roach2.com
"We have an HDTV DirectTV satellite connection and a 23" plasma HDTV to enjoy pregame shows and the other games that we watch in the parking lot before and after the Eagles game." -- Ed Callahan (a.k.a. Big Ed from the Northeast), TheEagleMobile.com
"Make sure your firewood or charcoal is cold before disposing of it. Many experienced tailgaters let their grills cool off during the game, and then dispose of the ashes after the game." -- John and Sue Sroka, RamsTailgating.com
-- By Kara Zuaro
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