GOURMET HIGHWAY: Tailgating Down South

By Doc Lawrence.

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 super-sized, high-octane picnic as Deep South as grits with red-eye gravy.

Many wonder where tailgating 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. He says:

“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.

“No one tailgates like LSU,” claims New Orleans denizen Tim McNally, a broadcaster in the Big Easy and mainstay of the annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. “On game day, Cajuns and rednecks meet Creoles and urban dwellers. They consume countless bottles of very fine wine, Abita beer and Budweiser, accompanied by cochon de lait, jambalaya, oysters, hot sausage, crab dip and all the rest of the unique flavors of Louisiana. It’s bon appetite y’all.”

In Dixie, college football reigns beginning in late August. Nirvana is game day and while many claim that LSU is the mother of all modern tailgating, a Saturday outpouring of tremendous joie de vivre and spirit can be found in many places with huge parking lots with tents, grills and music. Happy people surrounded by aromas of barbeque and grilled food; pots of simmering gumbo plus fried fish, shrimp and oysters. Bottles of wine are uncorked until just before toe meets leather.

Tailgatin’ Grows
At Talladega, Alabama, NASCAR fans throw perhaps America’s biggest tailgating party, a weekend-long affair where wine has come of age. None other than Jeff Gordon is in the wine business with his Gordon’s Chardonnay on the market. Sonoma-based Ravenswood, widely known for it’s superb Zinfandel (the real thing is ruby-red and red meat friendly) sponsors a racing team and holds popular wine tastings at NASCAR events. Bennett Lane Winery owner, NASCAR celebrity Randy Lynch says “I want to turn beer guzzlers into wine drinkers—one race at a time,”

Richard Childress, current owner of one of the top NASCAR racing teams is making outstanding wines at Childress Vineyards in Lexington, North Carolina. His Victory Cuvée Champagne sparkling wine, a Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs Brut, is made in the traditional French Méthode Champenoise. The label displays a toast from Richard “to all your winning moments in life.” And, Food Network celebrity chef Mario Batali’s best-selling cookbook, Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, is all about food and great wine before and during the dramatic races.

Whether it’s Tampa, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Baton Rouge, Knoxville, Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Oxford or other college towns, count on serious tailgating every game day. Where beer once ruled, wine continues making serious inroads. Victory calls for Champagne, the greatest celebratory beverage of them all. Keep a bottle on ice and a few flutes for those magic moments.

Wine in America began at Virginia’s Monticello. A century later, tailgating first appeared a short distance away. Great Florida Chef’s like Judi Gallagher can produce a tailgatin’ feast to satisfy the best weekend gourmets. Everything this time of year comes together as a noble Southern tradition.

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