Tailgating: How to Do It Right

tailgatingThe word "tailgate" has several different meanings including the one we're using here: the custom of picnicking before or after an athletic event, concert, or race. This type of event originated in the American South, probably with college football, more than 100 years ago. Today, it's spread to many other team sports (such as basketball and soccer) as well as popular concerts. 


Tailgating is in full swing now that the college football season is upon us. The main activity at these events is eating and sharing food with fellow football fans (even those supporting rival teams).  Therefore, Shelf Life Advice just had to cover this social and culinary phenomenon. We have excellent advice to keep you eating well and safely while socializing in the great outdoors. Below, you'll also find links to several sites about tailgating preparations and recipes.


Don't think tailgating is just for college students.  Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter, a Shelf Life Advice Board member, tells us it's great fun for alumni, faculty, and staff, too.  No wonder Cutter is so enthusiastic about it.  Tailgating at her school, Penn State, has often been named one of the top 5 such events in the country.  This fall, it was rated #3. To read some September 2015 ratings on the best colleges for tailgating, go to the recent Daily Meal article on the subject. 


Parade one wrote a great piece which praised 1) the Cajun-type dishes (such as gumbo and crawfish) at Louisiana State University's tailgate parties; and 2) Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Georgia in Athens, where big screen TVs and satellite dishes are part of the scene. The article's author, Walter Scott, raved about the sights, sounds, and smells of tailgating activities, making the whole idea seem divine.  (But perhaps it's a trifle less wonderful if it's raining or -5°F out there.)  According to Todd Blackledge, a college football analyst and author of Taste of the Town (who is quoted in the Scott article) the best tailgating spots are in the South, where "food and football are almost inseparable." However, food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein speaks up for Midwest tailgating. He says the best tailgate he ever attended was at the University of Michigan, and the best baseball stadium for tailgating is Miller Field in Milwaukee.


How did tailgating get its name? Wikipedia defines tailgating as "a social event held on and around the open tailgate of a vehicle." However, the custom probably predates the invention of the automobile, and having a real tailgate is certainly not mandatory for participating in a tailgating event.  Food and drink is usually displayed on tables or sometimes set up in open-air tents (to offer some protection from sun, rain, or snow). 


A second definition of "tailgate" is to follow another vehicle closely (often, too closely). Dictionary.com implies this meaning when it says that tailgate events "usually center around a group of people who tailgate to a football game." 


Wikipedia says that in schools and communities throughout the United States tailgating events are often initiated by athletic departments and parents of student athletes (especially in schools with smaller, underfunded athletic programs). They use these events to feed the team and coaching staff after games, thereby saving the program money and helping to build "a strong core of support."


Is a tailgating meal breakfast, lunch, or dinner?


Says Dr. Cutter: "Some tailgating parties last from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m." The meal being enjoyed could be breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner, or more than one of these.  It might be breakfast to reward the tailgaters who got there early to set everything up.  Sometimes these events involve bringing a lot of heavy items--tables, chairs, tents, equipment to play music or play games, equipment for cooking, a hand washing station, and so on.


The shared meal might be brunch or lunch eaten before the game and/or an early dinner consumed afterward. The advantage of a post-game meal or snack is that the party-goers don't have to fight the crowd leaving the parking lot as soon as the big event ends.  They chew to their heart's content and leave when the lot is mostly empty. 


What meal is eaten depends upon the time the game starts.  If it begins at 3 p.m., lunch is usually served before.  For evening games, the meal is generally dinner, and it's served before the game.


How can I plan an almost effortless tailgating party?


Sure, you can make it simple, but even a minimalist's get-together requires some planning and some assignments for participants.  One person brings a cooler full of ice, water, pop, and beer. A few others arrive early the day of the game to stake out a good location and set out tables, chairs, and blankets.  Other participants arrive shortly before the game with chicken and burgers from fast-food places, supermarket coleslaw and potato salad, chips, nonperishable desserts, and fresh fruit.  No one cooks; the food is unexciting but cheap and easy.


But there's still a little more to do. You also need a stash of disposable wet hand wipes or, better yet, a hand- washing station with liquid soap, water, and paper towels. Add to that, napkins, silverware (if needed) as well as recycling and/or garbage bags.


Remember that pathogens multiply rapidly when perishable food is kept in the "danger zone," 40°-140°F.  Therefore, if there's no way to keep perishables either hot or cold, these items must be eaten promptly with nothing saved for a post-game nosh.


Your tailgating party will probably be more fun if more preparations are made. Therefore, let's expand the plans a bit.


What's to eat?


Traditionally, something to grill (hot dogs, burgers, etc.) and something to drink (most commonly, beer) are on the menu.  Other popular items: nonperishables such as chips and popcorn, sticky hot buns (for breakfast) casseroles (for any meal), deviled eggs, dips, and cheese with crackers for appetizers, ribs (made at home the day before and then reheated), buffalo wings, meatballs, cold sandwiches, mac and cheese, baked beans and Stromboli.  (There are many recipes online for this last item.)  Hot soup or chili is wonderful in cold weather especially when heated in a portable, propane crockpot.  


For tailgating party recipes, check out these links:


Food Network's "Tailgate Party"


Country Living's "Tailgating Done Right"


My Recipes "Tailgating Recipes'"


Martha Stewart's "Super Bowl Wings"


rachaelray.com "Tailgating"


rachaelray.com "8 Must-Have Tailgating Snacks"



Part of the fun, says Cutter, is walking around and grazing off of other people's tailgate spreads. To reciprocate, remember to bring along some extra food to offer to friendly visitors who wander over to your site.


What's to drink?


I've read that at Harvard the preferred alcoholic beverage is wine, but beer is what's usually expected.  Here are three tips concerning beverages:


  • ŸKeep cold drinks in a separate cooler from perishable food because the drink container gets opened frequently, and raw meat or chicken needs to be kept cold until cook time.
  • ŸIf you've got a source of water at your location, instead of lugging heavy beer cans, you may want to try powdered beer. You can read about this product here.   Since beer is 95% water, if you need to bring only the powder and a small piece of equipment for carbonation, you've significantly lightened your load.  But try this beer at home first to see if it tastes as good as the manufacturer claims.
  • ŸAs the weather gets cooler, a tailgating group is likely to want hot drinks.  Here's how Dr. Cutter handles that: "I have found that insulated water jugs work great. I boil water at home and carry it in jugs for making hot cocoa or tea. The water stays hot for several hours. We also bring room-temperature water and boil it in a metal pot or camp percolator on the camp stove."  Instant coffee can also be made with powders or--yes, they exist--single-serve coffee bags


 What should I bring besides food?


For comfort: Bring tables, chairs, blankets (to sit on and, in colder months, to use as wraps), and a tent. Some hosts bring portable, propane heaters to keep the tailgaters warm.


For entertainment: Bring a radio (to follow your team's game or other games, or for music), a CD/mg3/digital player (for music to dance to), or a portable TV.  Some RVs come equipped with satellite dishes that allow tailgaters to watch other athletic events during tailgating.


For cooking and eating: a grill, utensils for grilling, utensils for serving casseroles, lots of disposable plates, silverware, cups,  and napkins, a few tablecloths, and coolers if the weather is warm.  Add more items, depending upon what your group wants.


What kind of grill?  Dr. Cutter highly recommends this one: the Camp Chef Outdoor Camp Oven with Grill.  It has a 2-burner camping stove and an oven. Recently, Amazon's reduced price for this oven/grill was $199.99.  With luck, you may find a used one on EBay for a lot less.   


To keep food cool, use ice, blue ice, or gel packs. The  FreezPak reusable ice substitute is about the size of a typical brick, is nontoxic, and is recommended for picnics.  Furthermore, the product's label says that it's colder than ice. 


To enjoy hot food, Dr. Cutter says, "We typically cook on a portable gas grill or the combination grill/oven or bring the food to the tailgate hot in portable, insulated carriers and eat right away. An insulated carrier works great for transporting hot casseroles."


What are tailgating safety concerns?


Food scientist Joe Regenstein says, "I worry about food safety, fire safety, and the temptation to eat too much."  Shelf Life Advice can't give you will power, but we do have good advice about safe handling of food and fire. 


 Avoid grilling accidents:


Dr. Cutter points this out:  "When alcohol gets involved, people let their guard down, and things can go wrong."  And, when playing with fire, the risks and problems are greater.  Cutter says that, at Penn State, charcoal grills are not allowed, only gas grills.  "Tailgaters have been known to discard hot coals in the parking lot, and, in some instances, the hot charcoal would melt car tires or create fire safety issues.''  Dr. Regenstein points out that some stadiums provide for safe disposal of charcoal and, if so, these facilities should be used.


A few more tips: bring along a fire extinguisher, just in case.  Have really heavy mitts for the person doing the grilling.  Don't allow children to run around close to the grill.  For more safety tips around grills, read the Shelf Life Advice article "How to Grill Safely."  It also includes advice on how to grill without ruining the food and how to avoid contaminating food when cooking outdoors.  


 Avoid foodborne illness:


  • ŸDon't cross-contaminate!  Don't put food that's not going to be cooked onsame surfacerface that held raw meat or chicken.  Don't put grilled burgers on the plate that previously held the raw burgers. Well, you get the idea.  Keep raw meat and poultry away from other foods.
  • ŸDon't violate the "temperature danger zone" rule (the temperature at which bacteria multiply rapidly).  Keep perishable foods below 40°F or above 140°F.   Use that food thermometer you brought.
  • ŸDon't leave perishable food at room temperature for more than 2 hours or 1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F. 
  • ŸBe sure to keep raw meat and chicken in a cooler until it's time to cook.
  • ŸDon't be in a huge hurry to serve the food; give it time to cook thoroughly!  Use a food thermometer to be sure the food you're about to serve is at the minimum safe temperature; key examples: 145°F for steaks, 160°F for ground beef, 165°F for ground turkey and chicken, and 170°F for chicken breasts. 
  • ŸDon't forget to set up that hand-washing station and use it often.  Hands should be washed before preparing or serving food and before eating.  Remind the kids to wash their hands--for 20 seconds, long enough to sing all the lyrics of the "Happy Birthday" song. 


What else makes a tailgate great?


 Taylor Mathis' The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South suggests being creative and coming up with a theme for a tailgating event: for example, apple slices that look like mummies if it's near Halloween or a mutton main dish if the Rams are the opposing team. 


Mathis also says that, when he attended the University of Florida, there were tailgaters who arrived at the site at 2:30 a.m. to begin cooking an entire pig on a spit. That seems to me the ultimate display of devotion to the tailgating phenomenon.  But maybe you've had a tailgating experience that tops it. Tell us about your tailgating experiences.  Add a comment below.


Source(s) in addition to the links within the article:


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Wikipedia.org "Tailgate" and "Tailgate party"



rachelraymhag.com "Throw a Tailgating Party"


thedailymeal.com  "The 25 Best Colleges for Tailgating"




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