Don't Worry Summer Lovers: Tailgate Season Is Here
Just Think of It As a Picnic Out of the Back of Your Car.
This is the time of the year when social media panics because summer is almost over—one more lobster roll; one more soft-serve cone; one more day at the beach! I get it, it’s back to school and getting colder, and no one likes that—except I don’t go to school anymore and I love fall. So thinoporophobia (the fear of autumn) is not my thing.
When I was in high school, I obsessively poured over the “back-to-school issues” of magazines and dreamed of tartan kilts and Fair Isle sweaters. Then, when school began I would always “dress for fall” way too early and swelter in my turtlenecks and cardigans before the thermometer dipped below eighty degrees. (I later learned that Robert was guilty of the same fashion faux pas as a teenager and even on into college.) So, no, I’m not panicking about the end of summer, but I am longing for one of my favorite things in the world—tailgating.
I think of tailgating as a picnic, but you get to pack up everything into your car (even chairs!) and then unpack it right where you park. No lugging, no sitting in the dirt, no bees—okay, there are still bees, but you get what I mean. And for me there are two kinds of tailgates: fancy and sporty. That’s it. Sometimes the fancy ones are planned to watch sports, but they are usually sports like Steeplechase Racing or Polo. The sporty ones are typically at football or baseball games, in a stadium parking lot, not in a field like the fancy ones. I’ve done both. But for our purposes today, I’m concentrating on the fancy ones and I’m calling on Robert’s cousin, Betsy Trowbridge, as an expert on the sporty kind. She’s been going to Packers games at Lambeau Field since she was born.
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But First, A Brief History of Tailgating
Regarding the history of this tradition, it seems the person to talk to (or in this case, cite) is Tonya Williams Bradford. In 2015, she and John F. Sherry Jr. published a paper titled “Domesticating Public Space through Ritual: Tailgating as Vestaval” in the Journal of Consumer Research. In the essay, they take us through the origins of the social outdoor gathering we now know as tailgating.
The paper tells us that tailgating has been around in various forms since the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who would gather to celebrate the harvest. At the first major skirmish of the Civil War, the first Battle at Bull Run—later known as the “picnic battle”— ordinary citizens gathered at a safe distance to watch the fighting. As they traveled long distances to the battle and spent a good deal of time watching the bloodshed, food was a necessity.
Less than a decade later, in 1869, the first football game took place between Rutgers and Princeton. And we all know what happened in the century and a half after that. Over time, Americans added portable food and drink to enjoy before— sometimes long before—the start of the game; they pack it in their cars, drive to the game and tailgating was born!
My primary experience with fancy tailgates was at the Far Hills Race Meeting in central New Jersey. Many years ago, the The Far Hills Race Meeting was still called the Essex Fox Hunt—an event that took place after the hunt to thank the farmers for the use of their land—which was in no way the raucous affair the Meet is now.
Eventually, the fox hunt added a Steeplechase race and morphed into the New Jersey Hunt Club Steeplechase; and, after moving to what is now Moorland Farm, it became the Far Hills Race Meeting. This was when the tailgating began.
My father was a magistrate in Far Hills and they offered him a “space” each year. So, after a while he accepted their invitation and my parents drove their car up the hill and parked to watch the festivities. They hadn’t brought a thing with them except a bottle of wine and some sandwiches in a brown paper bag. Looking around, they saw tables set up with tablecloths, platters of finger food, sandwiches, whole hams, salads—everything you could imagine—and full bars. They used to tell me the story about how they laughed like fools as they slid their hands into their brown paper bag in the trunk, with its hood barely open so no one would see their embarrassingly modest spread.
Fast-forward to the next year; the Murrays were now all in! Buying three spaces—#586, #587 and #588, down where the action was—they parked dad’s little pick-up or his Volkswagen “Thing” so that guests could sit in the back of the vehicle. The guests watched the race with binoculars while dad took bets. Friends would come from all over and, as the kids grew up, new spouses and grandkids joined in on the fun.
Eventually, the Meeting was too much work for my parents and my sister and I took over the tailgate. Always a party planner, I dove in. I brought my leather camp stools and chairs made of tree branches, along with wool blankets for sitting on hay bales. These went well with my parents antique poker table “bar.” I made tablecloths from burlap or racing silks. All of the platters were wood, ceramic or metal—and packed up to return home when the races were over. I worked for architect Michael Graves and it had worn off on me; he said that only at picnics could one use disposable plates, cups and cutlery, and only when you were serving a large group outdoors. The Far Hills Race Meeting was always a beautiful day spent with family and friends.
Sadly, in more recent years, my parents got too old to attend. Then the crowds there became hoards, and the drinkers became drunks. It wasn’t a fun day in the country any longer, and we stopped going. But that wasn’t the only game in town. For a time they also used to tailgate at the polo grounds in South Jersey, so I have hopes we will find a new place to tailgate again!
What to Serve
A fancy tailgate is truly an outdoor buffet more than a picnic or grill party. Depending on the amount of guests, you may need a separate bar table—and even a satellite table that can act as the breakfast/dessert table. This will leave your main table free for you to set up unfettered.
My parent’s friends, the Kunz’s, would bring a whole roast beef; and Pat and Joe Napoleon would bring a camp stove with a pot of homemade chili. There were seafood platters (watch the temperature with these!) and all varieties of cheeses, meats, vegetables and dips. Anything that you would find at a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres, you’d find there, including my mom’s ham.
The main pitfall, other than rainy weather, is the temperature outside. Don’t ignore the temperature’s effect on your food. A too-cold day is great because the food won’t spoil; but get a warm day, and you’ll wish you had brought more ice. And if it’s cold, it’s pretty impossible to keep things hot. I once tried to serve fondue in a vintage fondue pot on a freezing day; of course, it congealed. That day, our own Mark Ward coined the phrase “Fon-don’t.”
As far as beverages go, more is better, but remember you are outdoors, so your beautiful bowl of punch will be speckled with floating bugs and become a bee magnet—not the effect you hoped for. Pre-batch and bottle your cocktails. Offer an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. And, again, watch the weather: more ice, champagne and beer on the warm days; more coffee and brandy on the cold days.
Now it’s time to discuss the king of American tailgating: the sporty tailgate. If I want to know anything about football, I ask Robert and his family. The Simonsons and Trowbridges and Pommerenings have been Green Bay Packers fans since before the beginning of the NFL. The Trowbridge family have had season tickets to the Packers games since Lambeau Field opened in 1957. But, according to Betsy Trowbridge, the tailgating started there in full force in the late 1980s.
What to Serve
More of a picnic-meets-backyard-bbq, the traditional tailgate spread has salads, sandwiches, grilled hot dogs, hamburgers and, of course, brats if you’re a Packer Backer. People bring soup or chili to heat on camp stoves or, more recently, in crockpots. If it’s cold—and in Green Bay, Wisconsin, it usually is—you’ll want plenty of hot food and hot drinks. But there’s always soda, beer and cocktails as well.
Betsy Trowbridge totally loves tailgates and I don’t blame her. Being a witness to the birth of professional football at a stadium like Lambeau Field, she has expert, rockstar status. Her favorite tailgate food was the hot Mexican dip made by her mother, Ruth Trowbridge. Layers of cream cheese, then turkey chilli, then shredded cheddar all warmed in the microwave. Served with chips. It was one of dishes that was always eaten at their tailgates. They also had a memorable cheese board, which in Wisconsin, land of cheese, is saying a lot.
“The two specialties of the day were Ed Thompson’s Bloody Marys and mom’s cowboy soup. Both iconic,” Betsy recently texted me. Drink-wise for the Trowbridges’ bar there were always Bloody Marys (which Betsy said in Wisconsin meant lots of vodka and a splash of bloody), beer and Old Fashioneds, which were made with Brandy most of the time. Betsy and her family set their tables in front of Ed Thompson’s Suburban, and there was always a tablecloth on the table.
For this post, I am lucky enough to share with you a bonafied classic recipe from Betsy’s mom, Ruth: Cowboy Soup. It allows for lots of creativity, so have at it Cowboys (and I don’t mean Dallas)!
This fall, I am finally going to attend a Packers game at Lambeau Field, with Robert, his son Asher and my son Richard. Robert and Asher have been to many Packers games. Richard and I are first-timers. I look forward to scoping out the tailgating scene at Lambeau for some additional expert tips on autumnal picnicking!
Thanks for reading!
Odds and Ends…
The Hi Hi Room, the eclectic Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, eatery, from the folks at Court Street Grocers, announced it would close and reopen as something else at the end of August. The place was known for its inviting atmosphere, excellent cocktail program and its eccentric menu, which often featured interpretations of regional specialities like Cincinnati Chili, Utica Greens, pimento cheese and the Chow Mein Sandwich. The restaurant received a good deal of press, but it had the bad luck to open in November 2019, right before Covid. The closing is a personal loss for me. The Hi Hi Room was one of my favorites and I had many an enjoyable lunch there. Last service will be Sept. 3. … Laura, the owner of Dick and Peg’s Northward Inn, near Gloversville in upstate, New York, has a good way with a muddled Old-Fashioned. The atmosphere inside is perhaps the closest I’ve encountered to a Wisconsin supper club in New York State… In September, the Glove Theater in Gloversville will present the 1980s films of John Hughes, including Sixteen Candles (Sept. 6), The Breakfast Club (Sept. 13), Pretty in Pink (Sept. 20) and Weird Science (Sept. 27)… Russo’s Grill in Amsterdam, New York, has been servicing Italian food since 1920. It is still run by the Russo family. Every sandwich, whether standard, open-face or a hamburger, is served on thick slices of homemade white bread. The meatballs, sausage and marinara are also all homemade. I recommend the sauteed greens, beans and sausage appetizer and the Hot Meatball Sandwich, which is drenched in marinara. But, based on our meal, I imagine everything they make is pretty good… Marta, Danny Meyer’s midtown restaurant that served the best NYC version of Roman pizza, bar none, and my favorite of Meyer’s many restaurants, is going to close on March 25. I will be having one last meal there soon and will report back.