By Doc Lawrence –
Festivals, celebrations and harvests fill the weekends as we gradually move into autumn. Solid traditions continue while new ones emerge. Few established feasts have the energy, flavors and aromas of tailgating, the wildly popular gatherings outside college football stadiums on game days, a ceremony that began in the early days of the Civil War. The name tailgating has found its way into American vernacular, a 21st century picnic powered by a V-8 engine.
Tailgaters, estimated to number around 50 million enthusiasts, spend on average more than $5000 dollars annually, a windfall for college towns. Once predominantly male where the menu was hot dogs, burgers and beer, it has evolved into a gender neutral extravaganza where the women bring creative dishes prepared at home, ready to serve or reheat, setting an attractive table under a tent, pouring refreshing sangrias and nice wines, where everything is enjoyed using disposable, recyclable dinnerware.
Restaurant menus, terrific home cooking, wine and food festivals and cocktails from good watering holes are somehow influence tailgating. The parking lots at LSU in Baton Rouge become a hospitality showcase. Jambalaya and gumbo are omnipresent. Where there’s music, there’s dancing and these tailgaters do everything right long before kickoff. The Florida-Georgia football game claims to be the world’s largest tailgating event. Many fans begin arriving in Jacksonville on Wednesday for the Saturday game; some actually staying until late Sunday.
Tailgating is a good measuring device for taste trends and preferences. New products? Datil peppers came to New World just after the settlement of St. Augustine by explorers centuries years ago. The pepper, with its plutonium-like intensity, originated in West Africa and today holds an exalted place in Florida’s distinctive agriculture. My first Datil Bloody Mary was made with a sauce named Datil instead of Tabasco. The All- Florida cocktail won a new fan.
College football tailgating is an art form, particularly in wonderful places like Charlottesville Virginia, Oxford Mississippi and Baton Rouge. Gainesville, Tallahassee and Miami have distinctively Florida tailgating traditions. Clemson, Knoxville and Louisville are closely tied to local food preferences. North Carolina’s Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill serve great barbecue on game days. When Georgia’s Bulldogs are playing at home, Athens blossoms into a giant outdoor showcase of local delights like cheeses from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia and wines from Crane Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This is my 11th season of traversing the South for the first-hand tailgating experience, living proof that this is enjoyable work with some pretty obvious rewards if you like making new friends, sampling well-crafted cocktails, dining al fresco while being introduced to new wines.
Tailgating demonstrates the close relationship between geography and food heritage. Before an FSU or University of Florida home game, delicious smoked mullet dip is commonplace. The raw oysters served in Charlottesville before a Virginia home game are perhaps the finest I’ve devoured and North Carolina’s barbecue rightfully sits on the Southern culinary throne.
Tailgating has an interesting history. Frank Spence is a former Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons top executive and a familiar face in the NFL and on college campuses. As one of the most respected voices for the tailgating nation, he says there are tailgating ties with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. “Tailgating here is a hallowed culinary ritual,” according to Mr. Spence. “It’s core heritage, as Deep South as grits with red-eye gravy.”
Spence says that the 1861 “Great Skeedadle” and the law of unintended consequences launched the first tailgating party. The Nashville native was referring to the Union Army retreat after the first battle of Manassas. “Congressmen, accompanied by beautiful women, set up colorful tents for a fancy hillside picnic to view the assumed quick destruction of the fledgling Confederate Army. Unaware of the looming defeat, 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 unpacked goodies. Exhausted Southern soldiers removed the food and wine from the rear of the wagons and celebrated, going home after the war to share memories of the experience.”
Thus, says the ebullient Mr. Spence, “tailgating was born.”
Travel is fun and sometimes enlightening, especially during the college football season when tailgating reaches its zenith. The spirits soar with the first glass of wine. New friendships are always possible and if you are still hungry or thirsty at kick-off, don’t blame the hosts in the parking lots.
Remember some Saturday to ask one of those self-taught tailgating bartenders for a Sunshine State eye-opener. It’s called the Datil Bloody Mary.