Approximately 25.1 million people — more than the population of Australia — watched the Baltimore Ravens travel to Denver to battle the Broncos for the National Football League's 2013 season opener.
The television set is the modern flickering fire around which many break bread (all the better to mop up the seven-layer bean dip).
Whether a fan or foe, American football means food. And football food is at the center of the grand tradition of tailgating, a practice that fills parking lots with team-color clad fans and their oft-intricate mobile kitchens.
Of the 50 million estimated tailgaters in the U.S, about 35 percent never even make it into the game. And some people don't even go home after the game — at least not in the classic sense.
Meet the Commish
Joe Cahn, also
known as the Commissioner of Tailgating (Commish for short),
lives in a 40-foot Country Coach RV, which he shares with his cat Sophie.
Cahn's RV, which he calls the JoeMobile, has logged more than 850,000 miles traveling to each of the 31 National Football League stadiums, as well as countless parking lots at colleges and even NASCAR tracks.
Pulling pork at a University of Georgia tailgate.
That's why his closest is stuffed to the gills with jerseys from every pro football team, plus dozens of college-themed T-shirts. “I'm always at home, so I'm always for the home team wherever I am,” he says.
Sophie is more particular. Cahn says his cat's allegiances lie with the feline-themed franchises. “She doesn't particularly like the bird teams,” Cahn says. “She's very much a cat person.”
As intrinsically bound as food and football are, it's appropriate that Cahn was led to the parking lot through his relationship to cooking. An ex-chef, Cahn used to own the New Orleans School of Cooking, which he sold before hitting the road with the intention of creating a television show about food and traveling.
Parking Lot PartyThe parking
lot, says Cahn, is “the world's greatest free cooking lesson. There are a lot
of people walking around with notepads. Everyone wants to talk about their
Drawn by the community created through tailgating, which he calls "the ultimate neighborhood", Cahn decided to make the road his home. And home, he says, is where the food is.
Burgers and dogs are a quintessential tailgating trend.
In Kansas City, rising smoke means barbecue. “And when I'm down in San Diego, I know I'm going to have tamales and some of the best guacamole in the world,” Cahn says. “They don't bring in guacamole, they make it right there in the parking lot.”
In San Francisco, Cahn sees fresh vegetables, salads and more wine than beer. Across the bridge in Oakland, he'll find grilled tri-tip (and enough silver face-paint to make a city block sparkle).
The New Orleans Saints' stomping grounds are filled with the smells of jambalaya, grilled oysters and buckets of gumbo. And in Miami, whole pigs are roasted in a coal-fired contraption called a China box. In Baltimore, home of the Ravens, Cahn sees steamed blue crabs and Old Bay galore.
“As I traveled, I realized that tailgating is really homes that have been brought into a parking lot,” Cahn says. “I refer to it as walking into thousands of backyards with no privacy fence."
Beyond the parking lots, the same chain restaurants are everywhere, says Cahn. "But the home-style food is different in all parts of the country."
Sean MacDonald, a writer for Stadium Journey, is currently in the midst of a 119-day tour of each of the NFL's 31 game venues. Having sampled stadium food around the world, MacDonald still says tailgating is a quintessentially American pastime. “It's just the American thing to load up the RV with barbecue, burger, hot dogs and two coolers of beer and party with 20 people,” he says.
MacDonald is a native Canadian who has for more than a decade lived in Japan. He's attended sports events all over the world including in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, England, and France.
“Even in Canada, (tailgating is) not something that we really do,” he says. “I think it's only in America, where they have the space to build these huge stadiums with huge parking lots that everybody drives to. In the rest of the world, public transit is the way to go.”
But tailgating doesn't necessarily mean going to the stadium, says Cahn.
“It refers to that casual party, where we don't have to send out invitations or worry about what to wear,” he says. “We can wear our team colors and not formal attire, and people can bring some food over. Food and football, I think, go hand in hand.”
Throw Your Own Tailgate Party
Spicy treats on the grill in Denver.
Be family-friendly. “Sports is the only thing we let children have an opinion about. We won't listen to a child talk about politics, but we'll listen to an eight-year old talk about who should be starting right guard.”
Be comfortable. “The 'Tail-Gators' in Detroit always brought a hot tub to the game. There's nothing like taking a soak before going to the game.”
Be adaptable. “I knew a guy who dug a hole in the ground, filled it with coals, covered it with a grate from home and cooked his food,” Cahn says. “When he was done, he just filled the hole.
Serve Dasani. “You have to stay hydrated.”
Diversify. “It's always nice to have a lot of options for people.”
Keep it simple. “This is not a cooking contest.” No one is getting chopped.
Think ahead. “Always have a checklist. And prepping means more time with friends.”
Keep it clean. “Bring heavy trash bags for recycling and garbage.”
Above all: “Have a good time.”
No Fumble Fire EggsAn Upper Peninsula Delicacy From Jeff, a Detroit Tailgater, courtesy of Joe Cahn.
3 dozen hard-boiled eggs
1 large onion
1 large bottle (12 oz.) hot sauce
1 small bottle (5 oz.) Tabasco various hot peppers, sliced *
Boil and peel eggs. While eggs are boiling, pour Tabasco and hot sauce into container large enough to hold eggs, onion and peppers. Cut onion and hot peppers into slices. Add eggs, and cover with vinegar. Let eggs soak a minimum of 1 week for best results. The longer they soak the hotter they get.
* I use fresh habanero, jalapeño, cayenne, and chili peppers. But you can use any combination of fresh or from a jar. These are what make the eggs hot or not, so it is personal preference.
I usually make two batches throughout the football season, one at the beginning and one when they run out. I have had them soaking for a whole season before, but the egg loses its texture over time.
Dave's First Down DipFrom the Gumbo Pot of Chef Dave Prows, C.E.C., courtesy Joe Cahn
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped green onions
2 cups softened cream cheese
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 each grilled chicken breast (diced)
1 cup cooked black beans
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 cup mixed grated cheese to taste
Tabasco to taste
1 bag chips (Blue Corn and Flour Tortillas)
Soften the cram cheese by beating until smooth in a mixer. Add all the other ingredients except the cheese and mix by hand until combined, add the seasonings as needed or desired. Top with the grated cheese. This dip may be served hot or cold.
For the hot dip, pour the mix into an oven safe bowl and bake at 350 degrees until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Approximately 13 minutes. Serve with chips.
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