Shhh...If you listen closely, you can almost hear it. The distant sound of drums and trumpets. The crash of helmets and pads. The roar of warring tribes punctuated by earsplitting whistle blasts. And of course, play-by-play commentary by guys in sports coats, pumped over a billion-watt PA system.
It's football season, and time for dedicated fans to show their team spirit -- through age-old cheers, judicious application of body paint, and pregame celebrations in stadium parking lots. The beer flows, the folding table groans under the weight of high-grade munchies, and your team's fan base heads to the game fortified and whipped into a frothy frenzy. This, my friends, is the essence of tailgating.
For the seasoned host, the thought of throwing a tailgate might seem like a simple affair: Move your patio cookout to the local sports complex, and BINGO! You've got a tailgate! Alas, it's not so simple. While the classic tailgate party bears some resemblance to other alfresco eating experiences, stadium-side feasts have their own set of rules -- what to eat, where to set up, and how to deal with challenges specific to game-day dining. To coach you to pregame victory, we've put together a play-by-play guide to tailgating, complete with eight classic recipes, an equipment checklist, and tips for getting it all done.
The original tailgate parties, launched during the mid-century heyday of the family station wagon, were blissfully simple affairs. Dedicated fans would show up at the stadium parking lot a few hours before kickoff, toting an ice chest full of beer and a few simple dishes to munch on before the game. They'd spread out their improvised picnic on the most convenient horizontal surface available -- the open tailgate (hinged door) at the back of a pickup truck or station wagon -- and hold a simple pregame party.
But as years passed, menus and setups evolved. Charcoal grills went from luxury to necessity, dips and appetizers came into fashion, and home cooks started bringing their favorite dishes. Before long, the party had outgrown the station wagon tailgate and become an all-day phenomenon, with blasting audio systems, big-screen TVs, and team-color cocktails.
The modern tailgating menu is influenced by regional traditions and specialties: Fans of different teams incorporate their own favorite flavors into the pregame feast. In the Upper Midwest, Bratwursts are standard fare at Wisconsin and Michigan tailgates, while at Louisiana State University, Tiger fans cook huge pots of gumbo to ward off the late-autumn chill. For many tailgaters in the South's SEC conference, a pregame feast without a plate of Deviled Eggs would be unimaginable. And of course, cooks from the various barbecue centers of the U.S. ( Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kansas City, to name a few) trot out their meaty specialties in the name of good sporting cuisine. Before a Chiefs game, for instance, the parking lot of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium is fragrant with wood smoke and barbecue sauce as pit masters show off their best barbecued Pork Ribs.
The Menu Game Plan
The secret to a successful game-day menu is to recognize that a tailgate is equal parts cookout and cocktail party, and to plan your food accordingly. At a standard tailgate, folks mill about, socializing, drinking beer, and perhaps even tossing the football -- in other words, they aren't sitting down at a table, and most likely they only have one free hand. This means your menu should be simple and focus on foods that can be enjoyed standing up, one-handed, and preferably without utensils. To figure out what to make, consider including something from each of the four tailgating food groups.
The Dip Group:
Tailgates are by definition very graze-friendly, so it's always a good idea to have a few bowls of chips and some homemade dip -- try a simple Black Bean Dip, or a creamy Blue Cheese Dip spiked with peppered bacon. To mix things up, add a platter of crispy raw vegetables for dipping.
The Stew Group:
Conditions can get awfully chilly -- Green Bay Packer fans routinely brave blizzard conditions to watch their team in Lambeau Field -- and the best defense against frostbite can be long underwear and a bowl of stew. Late in the season, nothing warms the belly like a bowl of spicy beef Chili or its close cousin, Chipotle Pork Stew.
The Grill Group:
Flame-cooked fare is always a favorite. Go simple with burgers and hot dogs, or dress it up a bit with fancier items like ribs and bratwurst.
The Sweet Group:
No pregame spread is complete without a little sweet stuff on the table. Grocery stores in college towns usually offer sports-themed sugar cookies spread thick with team-colored frosting, but simple homemade treats, like easy-to-make Peanut Butter Buckeyes, are better.
Ultimate Tailgating Recipes:
Food and Travel writer Pableaux Johnson is the Food Editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and author of ESPN Gameday Gourmet: More Than 80 All-American Tailgate Recipes.
Photo by Lara Ferroni
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