Outdoor Tailgating 101

Tailgating has not only grown into a national pastime, it has become something of a culture but it’s not always about the ball game.

By Jimmy Kennedy
Cook Ambassador

Preparing and eating meals on the back of one’s favorite mode of transportation has been a longstanding tradition all over the U.S. for a very long time. I am not sure if covered wagons were the first tailgate party or not, but I am pretty sure that early settlers and explorers stepping to the back of the wagon or cart to cook and enjoy a meal or snack was a common occurrence.

The modern revision of this form of carrying food (and cooking and eating) is said to have originated in a parking lot at a football game. Depending on who you ask or which article you read, it was either a Rutgers and Princeton game in New Jersey in 1869, a Harvard and Yale game in 1906 or a Green Bay Packers game in 1916. Green Bay gets the nod for the term “tailgating,” but families have been using the back of their vehicles for their outdoor kitchen and dining room forever. Plus, the credit is not as important as the fact that tailgating, whether it’s at a game or a picnic at a state park with the family, has truly become one of America’s favorite weekend rituals.

Not just for the big game

Tailgating has not only grown into a national pastime, it has become something of a culture. Everything from the preparation, recipe development and sharing, and cooking and presentation has been elevated to a major food happening as well as a sacred tradition. While most of the focus of tailgating is centered around football, baseball and other sports, it’s just as popular with families who are on a road trip, day hike, fishing trip or just looking to get outside and have a picnic.

(Justin Broulliard)

It’s a picnic

For all intents and purposes, tailgating is just a picnic utilizing one’s vehicle for transporting and storing food as well as prepping, cooking and serving. Some of my fondest memories as a kid were of my family meeting my relatives at a state park or a roadside picnic area. We would cook everything at home and then pack the car or truck and head to the designated meeting place. When it was time, the adults would bring out the picnic blanket and spread out fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, homemade pickles, pies and cookies and homemade peach ice cream. I had many food influences as a kid that led me to becoming a chef, but these family picnics are definitely among them.

Tailgate toys

Nowadays, with pop-up tents, portable generators, grills, tables, and coolers that are more like mini refrigerators, the family picnic has evolved into an on-the-go dining experience that is not as much about bringing already cooked food in a picnic basket as it is about cooking and serving food right from the truck and/or pop-up. These advances have made outdoor cooking much easier and more accessible for the outdoor family on the go in many ways. Being able to store food safely for an extended period of time is a big plus. In addition, the small but sturdy grills offer ease of use, high BTUs and affordability. There are numerous models of portable propane grills on the market, but check reviews and look specifically at portability, power output, cooking area, ease of cleanup, and temperature control. If you want to go with a charcoal grill, do a little research and check reviews. Important things to look for in a portable charcoal grill are the construction materials, especially of the firebox, seamless construction, and a rust-resistant material for both the drum and lid. Grate construction is also a very important feature in choosing a charcoal grill. Stainless steel, cast iron or enameled steel are good choices. Make sure the grill has a smooth working lid that has dampers and a nice, tight fit. A sturdy base is also important when using charcoal. Both propane and charcoal have their place, and there’s nothing wrong with using both at the same time.

(Justin Broulliard)

Make it a family affair

Instead of just packing a picnic for your next outdoor excursion, take some time and plan out a menu that you can cook and one that might make the trip even more enjoyable. Think about what your family or friends love to eat and always try and throw in a new, creative treat to keep them guessing. Also, if you have kids, let them help plan and prep the meal. They’ll learn some kitchen skills and will be more likely to help out and enjoy when it’s time to eat. One of my favorite things to do is to bring items to make a cheese board. This is another great way to get everyone involved.

Be respectful

No matter where you decide to set up and enjoy your tailgate picnic, at a state park, campsite, boat ramp or wherever, always remember to leave the area in better shape than when you got there. Pick up all trash, and if you use a firepit or charcoal grill make sure the fire is completely extinguished before you leave.

What to bring

  • Cooler
  • Grill (propane or charcoal)
  • Cooking utensils
  • Paper plates and utensils
  • Water (stay hydrated)
  • Good to have
  • Pop-up tent
  • Table
  • Chairs
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Games
  • Portable generator
  • Music

If you’re not already a part of the tailgate and picnic community, it may be time to make plans with family or friends. Grab a grill, a cooler, plenty of food, and whatever else you feel you need, and make food a big part of your next day outdoors.

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