Feature Stories Fall 2016 Issue

The State of the Tailgate

By Andy Radtke | Photos By Wisconsin Historical Society & Jim Klousia 0

WI Historical Society, WHS-27766

Every green-blooded football fan can tell you exactly when the Lambeau Leap got its start. December 26, 1993, in the fourth quarter against the Raiders, for those who doubt my pedigree.

But unlike that wonderfully fumbly play that led to a happily beer-sloshed Leroy Butler, the origin of perhaps the most cherished tradition among football fans— the tailgate—is, at best, dodgy. Just exactly who snarfed the very first tailgated morsel, and where is this thing headed now?

We verdant hemoglobinites will tell you the fine art of pre-game parking lot excess traces back to the first professional football game played in (where else?) Green Bay in 1919, when curd-heads arrived in their pickup trucks to find, what!? No bleachers? Ever the can-do folk, they simply grabbed sausage, cheese and brewski, dropped the tailgate and watched the leather-headed carnage from there. Suspending my willingness to disbelieve in a wide distribution of pickup trucks in 1919, I won’t argue this claim and neither should you, fellow cheesehead, neither should you.

Let’s own it but be wary of foreign, pointy-headed fans who will claim that tailgating actually first occurred before an 1869 Rutgers-Princeton game, replete with crumpets, merlot and team-appropriate colored scarves. Still others will go further back, to the early Civil War battle of Bull Run, when aristocrats from Washington, DC, set out in their carriages, picnics in tow, to watch the war begin and, before the dessert liqueur was poured, cheer its quick end in a crushing Union victory. Overzealous historians can trump even that crazy talk by pointing to the ancient Romans’ harvest-chariot bacchanals.


As we debate this eminent topic, let’s not lose sight of the important things. Tailgating’s camaraderie, we can all agree, is rooted in traditions of blood sport and ridiculous quantities of food after the harvest—an especially cherished lifestyle combination in Wisconsin. This year, in fact, we got the grill started early at the Holy Land-beau of football. Our trend-setting state mixed some amateur gladiators into the ultimate pro bowl, the south with the north, the red with the green—and a dash of tiger yellow for taste—and showed the world how to stripe the bratwurst.


What's that smell? As football’s fan base continues to expand (in more ways than one) I’m forced to admit, the sport is not just for us meat-eating knuckleheads anymore. A Princeton-like culinary quality has sidled into the parking lot, and, you know, it’s sort of tasty. Back in the day, tailgate fare was as predictable as fat on a lineman. Where once we chomped brats and burgers between slugs of beer, now we have hummus and hoagies, tofu and tamales, plums and pulled pork, Cabernet and couscous, and all varieties of foodie whatnot. I don’t want that this should scare you, but it appears to me this menu change is gaining speed, and it may be permanent. 

A quick Google search will make it clear: This ain’t your daddy’s Wisconsin tailgate. You’ll encounter a jarring number of sites promoting “tailgate recipes for the modern world.” Sure, the basics are still there—the meaty, grilly, dippy basics, with twists and gimmicks, of course—but these cyber-tailgater upstarts can’t wait to start hiding the ball. Foom! Here comes a ghee luchi! Smack! A linguini white sauce thingy scoots off the paper plate. Zoing! Zucchini bloody mary!? Truly disturbing.

Until you taste it. Until you nibble a piping hot spanakopita and marvel as it slowly infuses its pastry spirit into your October-morning, rum-dosed tummy. Maybe one can make exceptions. It’s not like we’re switching teams here. After all, we have to watch our cholesterol, am I right?

Personally, though, I see a problem with this brave new parking lot. I can’t cook anything that requires gear more sophisticated than a microwave, a skillet or a grill. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good cooking, so I must rely on others to prepare these pioneering tailgate dishes and set in motion my considerable mooching skills.


Photo by Jim Klousia

The aspect of pre-game tailgating we’ve not yet discussed is the social scenario of the warm-up party. Everyone is on their best accommodative behavior because everyone understands that there is a (slight) chance their beloved team may lose the upcoming game. Gloating now is unbecoming and risky. Hence, the parking lot on game day swirls with an atmosphere of terrific interpersonal caution that can be exploited. Unspeakable, I know, but the wise person can take advantage to gain worldly, savory experience.

It’s easy. Simply locate the particular iteration of new-order food that most appeals to you (this may require preparatory scouting missions amongst the tented cars, cleverly disguised as hikes to the port-a-potties), identify the team affiliation of that food’s guardians and either back-slap and high-five ‘em profusely (if they wear colors identical to your own), or welcome them to your city, fawn over their star player and wish them the best of luck and may the best team win (here, a brimming flask of fine bourbon will help your cause). Nine times out of ten, food is offered unto you, silver spork and all.

In parting, a reminder: In your anticipation of all the novel tailgate treats, don’t forget the beer! Last year, my brother and I made this mistake and found ourselves choking down room-temperature light beer, the only thing available at the Regent Street 7-11 ten minutes before kickoff. Forgot the bottle opener, too, so we dropped the tailgate of my old (but not 1919 old) Chevy pickup to use the handy metal latch cross-purpose, and just as for thousands of game day revelers who came before, it all worked out in the end.

Andy Radtke lives and works in Wisconsin’s ancient Driftless region, northwest of Madison. After ten years as resident of that city, where he attended the University of Wisconsin, waited tables at a west-side eatery and learned to make art, he moved back to his family’s retired farm in the rolling hills. Andy writes for family farmers in between bouts of picture making.

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