We thought we were early. We pulled into Penn State’s Beaver Stadium at 5:30 a.m. for the festivities before a 1:00 p.m. football game. It was still dark, and the mist hadn’t broken yet, but the tailgate party was already underway. People were milling about, cracking open beers, setting up tents. We were immediately drawn in by the hospitality. “Hey,” a woman beckoned us over to her grill. “You want a grilled cinnamon roll? It’s a Penn State tradition.” She took one off the grate and handed it to me like I was a long-lost friend. “This your first tailgate?” she asked. My wife said yes as I bit into the roll. Its bottom was crisp, the glaze on top was melted, and the pastry was warm and welcomingly sweet. The woman said, “Then you two are in for a treat.” She started slicing venison on a folding table for a batch of chili.
College football and food have always been linked. How tailgating began is debatable—some claim it dates back to Roman times; others say the idea sprang from spectators gathering to picnic on a hill while watching the Civil War battle of Bull Run, in 1861. Regardless, what’s clear is that in 1869, before and after Rutgers played Princeton in what is considered the first college football game, the fans were as interested in the picnics going on around the field as they were in the game itself.
Nowadays, tailgates have evolved into mobile feasts: face-to-face social networks where complete strangers bond over food and drink, and everyone is eager to share. No one style of cooking is right or wrong, although certain universities are known for specific foods: stuffed roasted peppers at the University of Southern California, the University of Mississippi’s fried chicken, barbecued ribs at the University of Tennessee.
But in Tallahassee, when Florida State University is playing archrival University of Florida, amid the good-natured put-downs tossed back and forth by the fans, you find snack foods from bratwurst to fried alligator, which seems more commentary on University of Florida’s mascot than delicacy. Mostly, though, you’ll see some serious cooking: king crab legs boiling in huge pots with potatoes and corn, pork shoulders in improvised smokers, peas with smoked ham, turkeys in deep fryers, buffalo wings fried on portable gas grills, and spicy cabbage-and-pepper slaw to make hot dogs less pedestrian.
And there is no shortage of dessert: red velvet brownies, pecan pie, Key lime pie. Fans have even been known to bring cupcakes decorated in both teams’ colors. It’s a reminder that there really is only one rule to having a great tailgate party: Always bring enough for everyone—no matter which team you’re rooting for.