Three takes on an American tradition,
the tailgate party.
Like so many great American traditions, the tailgate party, or “tailgating,” is quintessentially democratic, to wit, you don’t even need to own a vehicle with a tailgate to participate. Essentially a party in support of a sports team or a cause (usually held around the tailgate of a vehicle in a stadium parking lot before or after a game), tailgating also fits nicely into our tradition of finding pleasure in competition.
Tailgating’s motto may very well be “eat to win,” and it perhaps is an expression of the superstitious belief that enthusiastic support can affect the outcome of a game. In 2012, Notre Dame professor John Sherry authored “A Cultural Analysis of Tailgating,” which takes a look at the popular pastime.
“People mostly consume spectacle, but tailgating is all fan-generated,” he said in a university communiqué. “They understand it as a contribution to the team’s victory. They are literally surrounding the stadium with their expressions of loyalty and love, and it’s much more communal.”
Consider tailgating’s origins. According to historians, its earliest appearance may have been in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run, where Union army supporters allegedly came out with baskets of food to witness the spectacle and shout encouragements to the troops.
Tailgating’s motto may very well be “eat to win”...
Tailgating historians further connect its origin to the development of the chuck wagon just five years later, in 1866, when a Texas rancher, seeking a way to feed his cowboys hearty meals on the go, converted a military wagon into a mobile kitchen.
Couple these developments with the supposed arrival of the pre-game celebration in 1869 at a collegiate football contest, and the tailgating tradition starts to come into focus.
Today, it’s more popular than ever. Most often associated with American football, tailgating is by no means confined to that sport. These days, tailgating can be witnessed around almost any sport, race, concert or public event, and it almost always involves copious amounts of food, preferably hot off the grill.
...the friendly, communal culture of tailgating guarantees that you’ll be offering food to new friends who amble up.
All this highlights the fact that it’s important to get the meal right. The food should be fortifying, but also delicious enough to stimulate not just your palate but your imagination as well. The beverages should animate your spirits without sending you to where no one wants you to go. And the whole meal may be thematically appropriate to the event at hand.
In the spirit of this most American tradition, we’ve composed tailgating menus for three large-scale sporting events. These culinary ideas are inspired not just by the unique nature of each sporting event—an auto race, a regatta and a good old-fashioned football game—but also by the logistical considerations one faces in serving a gourmet meal on the road. For instance, they all feature a mobile grill, one of the two most important pieces of tailgating equipment. The other? A cooler, of course. Now get out there, to cook, eat and drink.
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If you've ever attended or passed by the site of a big motorsports event, you'll know that it is perfect for tailgating. Car races are celebrations of the land, of the wide-open spaces and unfettered freedom that made America’s love affair with the car possible. In that spirit, we’ve considered an easy-to-cook menu highlighting food and drink that celebrates the land and the liberty it represents.
Car races are celebrations of the land, of the wide-open spaces and unfettered freedom...
What animal says “I’m an American who loves cars” better than the cow? Steaks are a good idea, but the realities of tailgating make it difficult to find a place to sit down and use a knife and fork. So we need beef that is easy to eat with the hands. The answer is beef fajitas.
Beef fajitas are a perfect tailgating food. Marinate flank steaks a day ahead of time in a solution that’s basically a margarita with garlic and soy (lime juice, salt, tequila, garlic and soy). Seal these up tightly in plastic containers, keep them on ice in coolers, and they’re transportable and grill-ready. Bring a cutting board and a sharp knife, and only the chef need cut the meat. Everyone else need only to fill up a tortilla with strips of deliciously tender, fire-grilled beef to be good to go.
To ensure a square meal, vegetables come easily into play. Prep rings of onions and strips of bell peppers, which can be thrown on the grate or cooked quickly in a sauté pan over the coals. The day before, make a huge portion of guacamole (it gets better overnight, just add enough lime juice to preserve it). Finally, get some fiery red and green salsa to deliver the heat, and don’t forget the tortillas.
As for sides, what’s earthier than the humble bean? Prep a delicious black or pinto bean salad the day before. Make it crunchy with diced carrot, celery and onion (or peppers and tomatoes), and serve it onto paper plates or bowls with a fork. Chips and salsa complete the meal.
This kind of meal lends itself to one of America’s favorite libations: Mexican beer. Light, low-alcohol and bright, cerveza is something that can be consumed over a long period of time and goes well with strong flavors. Perfect for a long day of tailgating at a car race (with a designated driver, of course).
Always drink responsibly, and never drink and drive.
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If car racing is a festival of the earth, a regatta is the perfect way to celebrate the water. So if you’re on shore, following the final leg of a qualifying round or camped out on the docks as the ships go out, why not go with a sea-based meal?
We’re going to a more inspiring theme: the age of global exploration by sea.
We’re going to look past the turquoise-colored shorts, sing-along songs, and lite beer in cans sometimes associated with maritime life and move to a more inspiring theme: the age of global exploration by sea.
As with steaks, cooking and eating fish in a tailgating situation is not ideal. That’s why, for this occasion, we eschew fish and use something much easier to eat with the fingers: crustaceans and shellfish, specifically, shrimp and scallops.
The easiest way to eat and cook these delectable sea creatures is to prep them the day before by sticking them on skewers. The morning of the event, immerse them in marinade. Try a few different types of marinade, perhaps a teriyaki sauce to evoke a voyage to Japan and a jerk sauce to conjure up the colorful Caribbean. You can skewer pineapple chunks to bring a Polynesian vibe and purple potatoes or plantains to suggest the coasts of South America.
Drinks for this tailgate fare should include the beverages most historically aligned with the sea: rum and wine. A light, bright white, like, say, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, will be a perfect match for all preparations of skewered shrimp and scallops. Use plenty of citrus: there’ll be no scurvy in these waters!
Always drink responsibly, and never drink and drive.
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The modern football game, to expand our operative metaphor, is a celebration of fire as in “all fired up.” So, to that end, our football tailgating menu will feature that majestic cousin to the phoenix, the noble chicken (which also happens to be incredibly convenient for mobile cooking).
We’ll start with that classic dish of sporting culture, the flaming hot wing. Sometimes fried, for tailgating purposes we’ll cook them on a hibachi. Simply marinate the wings at least a day in advance, grill, then toss in a hot, spicy sauce. Optional blue cheese dipping sauce and celery sticks are recommended and easily prepped and served.
We’ll add to the fiery theme by also serving barbecued chicken. Again, it’s easy to prep and cook. You might consider brining the chicken a day before to ensure moistness, and be sure it’s cut into pieces for easy serving. A good barbecue sauce can be cooked the night before and is easily transported. On game day, cook the bird on the grill in the parking lot.
The modern football a celebration of fire, as in “all fired up.”
The sides here are classic barbecue fare. Make a vinegary potato salad a day in advance (include lots of crunchy pickle and celery) as well as a tasty slaw: the combination of textures and flavors will be sure to please the palate. Just make sure that you bring plenty of everything and enough for the whole team.
As far as beverages go, the appropriate selection for an American sport is an American beer: a proper IPA. We didn’t invent the style, but we own it now, as American brewers have spent the last 15 years reinventing this potent brew. Strongly malty and hoppy, IPAs are good football beers, because they’re equally drinkable on a hot day of a lingering summer or on a cool evening in the nippier, sweater weather of fall.
Have fun with tailgating. Preparation, easy transport and quick cleanup are key. Bring plenty of paper towels, trash bags and water (for drinking and washing of hands). Bring more food than you’ll need; the friendly, communal culture of tailgating guarantees that you’ll be offering food to new friends who amble up. And make sure to save some delectables for the post-game—a good tailgate doesn’t end just because the event is over.
Always drink responsibly, and never drink and drive.