Football season is like Christmas Day. We count down the days, waiting, obsessing, until the first game.
Thirteen weeks later, we will have blown through six home games on The Hill, two in The Rock, three car trips that lend themselves to tailgating, and a flight to South Carolina. Like kids tearing through Christmas presents, we will hardly remember enjoying any of them before the countdown begins again.
The social atmosphere that surrounds a great tailgate is an integral part of Southern life. Our children have practically been raised at tailgates, even before they were old enough to go to the games. I would not trade the fun with family and friends from a season of Tusk to Tailgates for a Razorbacks’ national championship.
Well, let’s not get carried away.
Last season we had friends from Australia attend the Auburn game. They toured the campus, visited various tailgates, and spent all afternoon with us. As we started packing to go to the game, they did not want to leave. They were excited to see American football, but they felt there was no way that the actual game could be more fun. They loved the idea that people congregate for hours under a tent, eat off the grill, and drink all types of concoctions in anticipation for a football game.
They were particularly enamored with Sweet Tea flavored vodka mixed with raspberry lemonade.
As with football itself, the Southeastern Conference does tailgating better than everyone else. We have visited all 12 schools that made up the SEC before Missouri and Texas A&M joined, as well as other football factories such as USC and Texas. Each school has its traditions and its own unique flavor. Fayetteville and Little Rock uphold their end of the sport on and off the field.
Over the course of this season we endeavor to share some of our experience and help readers perfect or start their own traditions. Through 12 years of tailgating together, we have tried a lot and seen even more.
We try to stick with what works. Among the constants:
• Book hotels in the smaller SEC towns by January or February at the latest. This is the only way to secure a room in a town the size of Auburn, Ala. We booked so early in College Station, Texas, that the hotels were not even aware they were hosting a game that weekend. This saved us hundreds of dollars.
• Reserve flights to farther destinations such as Columbia, S.C., during the summer months, but well in advance for an opportunity to find cheaper fares.
• Buy basic tailgate supplies throughout the year and on sale whenever possible.
• Equipment upgrades are handled throughout the offseason as well.
• By the weekend before the first game, a complete inventory of supplies has been made with a menu plan. That just leaves buying food and beverages during the week, and then beginning to prepare the food a day or two in advance when possible.
As Tusk to Tail’s planner and organizer, my thoughts are occupied with this week’s first tailgate and the lack of time left to handle all of the necessary preparations. On Monday I try to get a head count on how many to expect.
Depending on the importance of the game, I will plan on extras. A game like Jacksonville State will not bring an overflow crowd, and it will not be a late arriving crowd. With it being Labor Day weekend, most folks have decided if they are going to the game or to the lake and plan accordingly. For a game like Alabama or LSU, I anticipate maximum capacity and plan for at least 20% overage based on friends-of-friends and unexpected drop-ins.
I try to plan the menu off the mascot of the opponent if possible. Jacksonville State and South Carolina are the Gamecocks, so chicken is the obvious choice. We had catered Greek food last year when we hosted the Trojans of Troy.
For a game when we expect huge crowds, bulk trays of barbecue are brought in to feed the masses. Catered food is more common than you may expect from a group of guys hanging around outside all day. Though most of us are adequate grill masters, nobody wants to spend the entire tailgate flipping meat over a hot grill. We tend to save the grill for quick and easy fixes, such as hot dogs for the kids.
Some other tips for these first few warm weather games:
• Avoid perishable dips and condiments. If you can’t keep them cool, you run the risk of making people sick.
• Serve cookies and brownies rather than cakes and chocolate that can melt. You want things that can be made in large batches and stand up to the heat.
• Offer plenty of non-alcoholic beverages. The kids love sports drinks and juice boxes, while the adults gravitate toward water and tea. Even the beer and mixed drink crowd needs to stay hydrated.
• Keep a separate cooler of ice for beverage making. Use a clean cup as a scoop to avoid hands touching the ice. Label the “clean ice” chest clearly, and keep some hand sanitizer available, just in case.
Keep supplies available that your guests may forget. Sun screen, lip balm, pain reliever, band aids, and stain remover pens have all come in handy at some point.