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Lara Ferroni
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.
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updated 8/27/2008 3:42:36 PM ET 2008-08-27T19:42:36

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.

Food
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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Drinks
Drinks are an essential part of any good tailgate, but there's no need to stock a full bar. Instead, focus on the basics: Pack plenty of beer and wine, plus supplies for classic two-ingredient highballs such as gin and tonic, bourbon and coke, and 7 and 7, and you'll have plenty to satisfy your crowd. Here's a rundown of your basic beverage needs:

  1. Beer: Pack lots of beer and keep it on ice. If you're serious about team spirit, opt for your favorite regional brew. A good rule of thumb is to buy one more six-pack than you think you'll need. It's always smart to have a few extra cans for sharing with neighboring tailgaters.

  2. Wine: If you have a wine-drinking crowd, bring several bottles each of red and white. This isn't the time to splurge: Wines in the $10 to $12 range will fit the bill nicely.

  3. Liquor: Since a tailgate is equal parts picnic and camping trip, it's best to keep your cocktail selection simple. Take an informal poll of potential guests, and ask them to choose one brown and one clear liquor. (Usually, it'll end up being bourbon or rum on the dark side and vodka or gin on the clear.) Match these with a few bottles of appropriate mixers, and you'll please most of the people most of the time.

  4. Mixers: Depending on the liquor you bring, fill out your bar with Bloody Mary mix, club soda, cola (regular and diet), ginger beer, lemon-lime soda (regular and diet), orange juice, and tonic water.

  5. Garnishes: You don't need to stock fancy garnishes, but you should always have essentials like olives and lemon and lime wedges. Bring a small cutting board and paring knife, or, better yet, cut the wedges ahead of time.

  6. Supplies: You'll also need plenty of disposable cups (at least two or three per person) and napkins (aim for six per person), a sturdy card table for your drink setup, a dedicated beverage cooler, and plenty of ice for keeping everything cold. Pack a few wine and beer openers, and if you're offering cocktails, make note of any necessary bar tools — at the very least, you'll need something for stirring drinks. Set up garbage and recycling bags so folks can dispose of empty bottles, cans, napkins, and cups.

Planning
Throwing a party for a dozen friends might not be such a big deal at home, but take that same party to a sun-baked or snow-filled parking lot, and you've got a different ball game. Keep the following tips in mind, as you're getting ready to take your show on the road.

  • Plan ahead: To avoid last-minute scrambling or forgetting essentials like charcoal, make a checklist of all the food, drink, and equipment you plan to bring. Remember that you'll also need to clean up and cart everything away afterwards, so make a second checklist for all the items you want to bring back home.

  • Know the rules: Most stadiums have strict rules about when, where, and how people can tailgate. At the University of Washington, Huskies supporters do their tailgating on the waters of Lake Washington, but before they pull their boats up to the designated party zone, they consult gohuskies.com for the necessary paperwork. Fans of the New York Giants find home-game tailgating regulations at meadowlands.com. Save yourself some serious hassle by checking your athletic department or stadium Web site for tailgating rules and guidelines.

  • Meet the neighbors: If it's your first season on the tailgate circuit, be respectful of established “party lines.” At many campuses and stadiums, tribes of tailgaters have been setting up in the same place for decades. You can usually spot them a few days before the game, patiently guarding their traditional territory. Also, they tend to fire up their grills early, so it's often possible to simply follow the smoke trail straight to their party sites. Once you find these loyal fans, be sure to check out their setup — they're experts, and you're bound to learn something.

  • Pick a team: Unless you're a professional caterer or a glutton for high-pressure punishment, it always pays to make tailgating a team sport rather than a solo production. Pull in help from the following folks:

One-dish wonders: Always go through your guest list and find a few folks to contribute their favorite dishes. If Uncle Bob makes good baked beans, have him mix up a batch. Remember that shameless flattery never hurts in the recruitment process (“Oh, Virginia, people have been asking about your famous pimento cheese…”).

The firebugs: Some guests are never happier than when they're standing in front of an open flame. Enlist one or two grill-happy buddies to tend the fires and ply them with plenty of cold beer.

The equipment manager: This is the pal who loves to call the plays and has the practical tools to back it up. He will pack his truck a few days before the game, double-check the guest list, and if necessary, show up the night before to cordon off the party spot. Keep this friend fed and happy

  • Keep an eye on the clock: Since your party start time is tied to kickoff, coordination is everything. If you've got a noon game, you'll need to get a really early start. If your team plays at night, you can sleep in. Either way, you don't want to miss out on any of the good pregame dining or schmoozing. To figure out just how early to get to the stadium, make a list of all your pregame tasks (we've included some essential to-dos below) and how long each takes, then work backwards from kickoff time. Keep in mind that in some places, tailgaters need to arrive extra-early to reserve their party space. Also, make sure that you've got some convenient snacking foods (a nice dip perhaps, or some melt-in-your-mouth deviled eggs) ready to keep folks fed while you work on the main courses.

Budget ample time for these basic (but usually overlooked) party-time tasks (all times approximate):

  • Hauling tables and chairs, and setting up your tent: 20 minutes
  • Preheating the grill: 30 minutes for charcoal, 20 minutes for gas
  • Running home to fetch your lucky “We're #1 foam novelty finger”: 30 to 45 minutes
  • Smoking succulent, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue ribs: 2 to 3 hours
  • Cleanup: 15 minutes
  • Finding the nearest garbage can with room for all your postparty trash: 30 minutes.


Equipment
For a successful tailgate, you'll need the following 11 essentials:

  1. A grill (gas or charcoal) or propane hot plate with extra fuel and a portable fire extinguisher.
  2. Plenty of disposable bowls, plates, cups, cutlery, and napkins. Aim for two or three per person of everything, and at least six napkins per person
  3. Large bowls and platters for serving, and serving utensils if necessary.
  4. Any condiments that are essential for your menu, plus any unusual extras you can fit in the cooler.
  5. Three separate ice chests (one each for beer, food, and meat products). Ice packs help keep cold items cold, while heatproof padding will help hot foods retain their heat.
  6. More ice than you think you could ever possibly use.
  7. Folding tent (team colors preferred) to keep your party safe from the elements.
  8. Two folding banquet/card tables for food and drinks—reserve some table space for a cook's workspace where you can take care of any on-site food prep.
  9. Nylon folding chairs (preferably with cup holders).
  10. A pumpin' car stereo for blasting the school fight song or endless pregame coverage.
  11. Heavy-duty garbage and recycling bags for easy cleanup — set up recycling and garbage disposal areas, and your cleanup will be much easier — and lots of paper towels.


© 2012 Epicurious. All rights reserved.

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