It is a hallowed culinary ritual down here, inextricably tied to NASCAR races, college and NFL football. Tailgating is core heritage, vital bedrock, and a supersized, high-octane picnic as Deep South as grits with red-eye gravy. Many wonder where it began. Frank Spence, a former top Atlanta Braves executive and a respected student of Southern customs believes that the 1861 “Great Skeedadle” and the law of unintended consequences launched the first tailgating party. A native of Nashville, Spence was referring to the Union Army retreat after the first battle of Bull Run. “Accompanied by beautiful women, Congressmen set up colorful tents for a fancy hillside picnic to view the assumed destruction of General Lee’s rookie army.
Unaware of the looming disaster, party wagons-forerunners of today’s caterers- arrived loaded with picnic baskets filled with fancy food, and cases of expensive French Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Reacting to the sudden bad turn of events, lawmakers and their ladies fled back to Washington’s fortified safety, abandoning the delicious goodies. Exhausted Southern soldiers removed the food and wine from the rear of the wagons and celebrated, going home after the war to share the amazing memories with others.” Thus, claims the ebullient Mr. Spence, “tailgatin’ was born.”
There is an art to producing a successful tailgate experience. The formula, according to authorities like Josh Butler, the acclaimed chef for three Florida governors, includes an outdoor venue, friends and family, wonderful food and appropriate things to drink. “Combine everything,” says Butler, who can lay claim as one of Florida’s most accomplished celebrity chefs, “and you have magic, a feast for the ages.”
Tailgating food should be informal, even casual. One secret is the little things served. I found the combination of charm and down-home cooking in a line of products made in Norman Park, Georgia, not far from the Florida border. Lauri Jo’s Southern Style Canning, www.laurijossouthernstylecanning.com, features pickled okra, pickled asparagus and green tomatoes and much more. This began as a hobby at a local high school canning plant and blossomed into a full-blown family owned and operated business with sales in 16 states including the Florida Panhandle. The products are unique to the South.
The pickled okra can be rolled in cream cheese and wrapped in honey ham for an unforgettable snack. The picked asparagus is a nice touch for a bloody mary stirrer and if fish-smoked, grilled or fried- is on the tailgate menu, the pickled green tomatoes provide extra mojo before kickoff.
The debate rages about the best tailgating culture. LSU, Auburn, Alabama, FSU and Florida make a convincing case, but then there’s Nascar. A weekend tailgating at Talladega just outside Birmingham will cast out any doubts that tailgating, just like barbeque and grilling, is solid, red-blooded Americana, a tradition that is only going to grow stronger.
Tailgating at LaGrange (Georgia) High School could put many colleges to shame. Five years ago, a couple of students decided to form there own spirit group called the "Blue Crew" selling T-Shirts, using the profits for hot dogs and hamburgers given to those who wore the shits for football games. The crew has grown. The night before each game, the guys go to the grocery store and purchase enough hamburgers and hotdogs to feed an average crowd of 200. The group is so large they have to start cooking early to feed everyone. The young ladies are in charge of setting up the serving line and assembling the cheeseburgers and hotdogs while the guys cook. Out of this, chefs will be born.
SOMETHING COLD AND DELICIOUS
Beer or sweet tea remain constant staples, but based on my first-hand observations, tailgaters are getting more sophisticated and gravitating to sparkling wines plus white and red still wines, particularly those that are light and handle a chill. Heaven knows, Tequila will forever have a prominent place with the tailgating bartenders. However, the objective is not serving alcohol; it’s compatability with the food. All these fit with the customary tailgating menu of Southern picnic-style dishes.
A variation would be Sangria. It’s easy to make, very popular and recipes are found all over the Internet and in cookbooks. For more drama, there are Mojitos, Daiquiris and even Martinis.
My favorite tailgating memory began after a game in the parking lot just outside FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium. Most football fans were tired and hot, but our gang was just getting warmed up. Some members of FSU’s marching band came by and we made a deal. If they would serenade us and beat wild rhythms on those amazing drums, we would include them in the post-game feast.
Three more hours of fun. A legendary tailgating soiree.