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A Brief History of Tailgating

How did tailgating get started? Chances are that most fans sitting in a parking lot prior to a game would respond, “Who cares. Gimme another hotdog.” Nonetheless, the cultural phenomenon of people massing together to imbibe spirits and inhale flame broiled meat has a serious basis in history, and a rightful place in American culture.

Tailgating: is an American Pastime

While modern tailgating has taken on a form of its own, there are multiple theories on how it truly all began. Here are a few theories on tailgating’s origins:

  • Early farming communities celebrating the harvest
  • The French Revolution and guillotine crowds
  • The first battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War (let’s picnic and watch a battle!)
  • Early twentieth century Ivy League football games where parking was scarce

No matter the chosen origin story, Americans claim tailgating as their unique invention, sort of like barbecue and jazz (both of which, by the way, work very well for tailgating). The word itself likely derives from our nation’s love affair with large vehicles featuring opening back ends, mainstays of American family transportation. Whether you prefer pickup trucks, SUVs, station wagons, or minivans, the best tailgating vehicles must easily transport, people, grills, food, and other equipment, then function as serving tables and pantries once the party begins.

Tailgating Gets Academic

It makes sense that a professor at a university with an impressive football legacy co-authored an academic study on tailgating. John Sherry is a professor of marketing and a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame. His take on tailgating harkens back to ancient harvest festivals. Keep in mind that back in the day harvest time was often the only time during the year that a community had plenty of food.

It’s easy to make comparisons, what with the fall weather and the abundant supply of food, but Sherry sees tailgating as a phenomenon unto itself.

Tailgating is actually a very complex social, community-building exercise, not simply a wild party, during which fans are able to connect with and actually help create their school’s brand…Tailgating, for the fans, is literally helping to create Notre Dame, or Michigan, or USC.

Other academic treatises proffer intellectual discussions about the practice that touch on “secular sentiment,” “collective action,” and “ritualistic behaviors.” However, you do not need a degree in anthropology or sociology to appreciate some of the finer points of tailgating, especially when it comes to the food and drink.

Modern Day Tailgating

No matter what origin story you believe created the opportunity for you to pre-game in the parking lot, there is no denying that it has become a science for many fans. There are still right and wrong ways to tailgate and following the following guidelines can make sure you do it right, no matter where you are tailgating.

The Menu

For everyone who thinks that community-building food experiences are limited to farm-to-table dinners and idyllic family meals with serene-yet-lively discussions of current events, I have one word: tailgating.

So says an author of a 2014 National Geographic article. Once it was about cold salads, chips, cheap beer and a few burgers. Today, artisanal foods and microbrews regularly appear at tailgates around the country. Need inspiration for your menu? There are scores of websites and tailgating associations that offer tons of menu ideas.

The United States Tailgating Association, “home of the professional tailgater,” has an entire section of their site dedicated to tailgate recipes from Game-Day Gumbo to Cheese-Head Dip.

Keeping it Legal

While drinking alcohol is often a major component of tailgating, local laws must be followed in any situation. Certain cities have laws banning public consumption of alcohol, including in stadium parking lots. Stadium lots are typically privately owned and may also have their own rules about outside alcohol on the grounds.

Another thing that may influence your partying is parking regulations and stadium tailgating rules. For instance, MetLife Stadium in the N.J. Meadowlands, which hosted Super Bowl 48, has a long list of do’s and don’ts such as:

  • One car = one space
  • Tables, chairs, coolers, barbecues, etc. must fit within the parking spot of your party
  • No fireworks
  • No ball playing

They also ban drones, just in case you were planning on some aerial reconnaissance.  

When the Party if Over

Tailgating, combined with the actual sporting event, is often hallmarked by fun times and great memories. Sadly, like every good party, it eventually comes to an end and though most people are excited to more than willing to prepare for the big game or the tailgate itself, some forget to prepare for their safe departure from the event. Once the game is done and the lot starts closing down, you need to address a few things:

  • Clean up after yourselves
  • Safely dispose of any grilling materials
  • Safely stow grills and containers for the trip home

Most importantly, make sure you are safe (sober) to drive home, and avoid getting angry with other drivers—they didn’t make your team lose, after all. If nobody in the group is able to drive home, arranging another safe form of transportation home and leaving your car for the night is the best tailgating choice you’ll ever make.

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