Girding for Battle
Before moving to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1992, which will be near on thirty years (or more) by the time you read this, I knew jack about tailgating. It’s a dirty little secret: While we can find any excuse to throw a party in New Orleans and few cities pull harder for their team, New Orleanians know relatively little about tailgating. This has changed dramatically in the last decade, when the Saints’ program became truly competitive, spurring our tailgating game to also level up and go toe-to-toe with great NFL stalwarts in parking lots around the country. But those gatherings were not around when I was growing up.
This may seem curious to folks who don’t know New Orleans well, but there is a perfectly good reason. The original Sugar Bowl stadium (Tulane University stadium), where both Tulane and the Saints played until the Superdome was opened in 1975, was located in an affluent neighborhood in uptown New Orleans, adjacent to the Tulane campus. Hundreds of folks within walking distance of the stadium held regular open houses on game days, choosing to stay close to their kitchens, rather than fuss over setting up tailgate spreads. There was also a shortage of parking lots around the stadium, so even if folks had wanted to tailgate, there was not much space for it. That’s why when I was a little one, my exposure to tailgating was nothing more than hopping from house party to house party.
In the early 1980s, I trundled off to Hampden-Sydney College, in Virginia (where, some rightfully argue, I did little more than piss away my parents’ hard-earned money). H-SC was an amazing place. To step on campus was to step back in time two or three decades. It was safe. It was honest. It was untouched, and tradition ruled supreme.
On cool fall Saturdays, tailgating was one of those well-established traditions. Wagoneers, Country Squires, Eldorados, and the rest filled the tiny oak tree–shaded parking lots next to the football field, their trunks propped open to reveal the bounty of a family’s kitchen after days of toil. It was here that I was first brought back to life from a previous night’s festivities with a bourbon and Coke, a cold fried chicken thigh, and pimento cheese. The smells of a musty trunk, leaded gasoline, a sun-beaten nylon interior, whiskey, and barbecue are burned on my brain, reminding me of one of the happiest places I can imagine anywhere.
So, after completely f***ing away a few years at H-SC, I dropped out. As a result, I found myself under my own financial horsepower and headed off to Chapel Hill, intending to continue my course of study at the University of North Carolina. At UNC, I fell in love with college baseball and stumbled into a group of folks who made sport of cooking out next to the third base line. It was a grittier version of what I had experienced in Virginia, but these guys were bringing out little grills and actually cooking. They brought fish, sausages, wild duck, and lamb. It was a mindblower, but it never dawned on me that this was an experience that had been completely missing from my life. I just knew I was totally sucked in and couldn’t get enough of it.
In the spring of 1992, I ended up in Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi and what most folks, who know about such things, consider the mecca of college football tailgating. The Grove, where Ole Miss fans have gathered for decades, is fifteen acres of tree-shaded glory in the middle of the UM campus. The one time I witnessed it prior to moving here was in the early 1980s, when that beautiful meadow was filled with cars, charcoal grills, blankets, silver service, mountains of meticulously prepared food, and perfectly coiffed football fans. It was a cathedral.
In the mid-1980s, the university made the decision to ban cars in the Grove out of concern for the 200-year-old oak trees and the pressure on their root systems. In some folks’ eyes, this was a seismic shift, and the Grove was forever changed.
I hardly raised my head for the better part of my first decade in Oxford—I opened City Grocery and started several other ventures, which occupied almost all of my free time. It was not until 2002 that I ventured out on a game day to enjoy myself. The Grove had become an ocean of ten-foot- square tents, which marked off folks’ territories. Charcoal was forbidden and the food was of a different stripe than I remembered. It was completely deflating. What was unchanged was the joy. The Grove was still the Grove, and a new generation had moved in as seamlessly as the generation before and the one before that. The conversations and embraces were there, but the spreads were less ambitious.
I continued to spend time there, and that part of the experience continued to slide. The realization I ultimately came to was that our lives have changed significantly since the early years of my adulthood. Most families are no longer single-income, and even if they are, parents now spend a large chunk of time with their children’s activities. Gone are the days when the nonworking parent (let’s face it: the mom) had three days to stay home, make food for thirty people, get all of the shit together, carefully pack the car, get up at the crack of dawn, set it all up, and entertain in the middle of a field. When you complicate that by separating folks from their cars, so everything has to be unpacked and then the car has to be parked in a remote spot (sometimes two miles away), the whole thing becomes a nightmare.
That scenario has been offset by conveniences like services that will bring tents, TVs, coolers, tables, and almost anything else and set it all up for you. And then there are guys like me who will cater to your every food and bar whim. In addition, every fast-food joint and restaurant in the surrounding county is in on the game of making tailgating life easier.
The downside is that the menus that generally bring joy to the hearts of college students, grown-ups, and youngsters alike are pretty basic and homogeneous. As a result, the offerings from tent to tent look remarkably similar. Let me be very clear here: This is not unique to the Grove. As I have traveled around in the last twenty years and had tailgate experiences at Talladega Raceway, Lambeau Field, Wrigley, several Super Bowls, and more, I’ve seen this trend everywhere. It’s the result of busy lives and a general lack of enthusiasm when it comes to cooking.
Bottom line: Throwing a tailgate is a pain in the ass. It requires so many of the chores we view as drudgery on one of the few days we have for rest. I get it. I tried it. A group of us tried to start hosting a tailgate about five years ago, around the time we were all having our first kids. Let me tell you, the wheels fell off that shit quicker than a knife fight in a phone booth. Our food was usually just as uncreative as everything I have described.
The 2016 Mississippi State–Ole Miss game was the last of that season, and I was in charge of the food. (I had totally phoned in my efforts on the previous times I had to take care of the food. Sorry for that, my friends.) It was going to be my swan song. In the past, I just hadn’t been able to find the energy after working six or eight hours on game day to wrap up work and tend to duties at a tailgate. For my last effort though I wanted to do something big, so we pulled out all of the stops. I wrote a menu of things I would want at a perfect tailgate. Then I dragged out a giant Cowboy Cauldron, a fryer, and a slow cooker and went to work. We had sweet-and-sour collards, Indian-Spiced Shrimp Skewers (page 63), Malaysian BBQ-Glazed Turkey Necks (page 44), Beef and Cheddar Hot Dog Links (page 147), blender drinks, and more. It was glorious. Hundreds of people clamored around the fire, curious about what the hell we were doing. Everyone wanted a piece of it, and all my people had a ball. It was a pile of work, but the joy in everyone’s faces totally washed away any of the toil we endured.
On holidays—Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Christmas, Labor Day game days—we completely ignore the perceived drudgery that cooking tasks can imply. American kitchens roar to life. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of charcoal are ignited in thousands of tiny, glorious pyres as men and women across our great land bring joy to the mouths and stomachs of their friends. The “chores” of shopping and cooking evaporate, if only momentarily, as we celebrate these moments together, by breaking bread. We nosh on bites, snacks, stews, sandwiches, and sweets and sip cocktails. Food knows no political affiliation, race, religion, gender identification, or sexual orientation. It is the one thing that brings us all back together, no matter how far apart we’ve become. So, this is what I do now: I care more about the joy these moments can bring than I once let myself care.
This is my tailgate. Let’s get it on!
Copyright © 2020 by John Currence. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.