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Tailgating: The History

December 2019

The Ultimate American Pastime Combines Cars, Sports, and Food

It has become as firmly established an autumn ritual as Halloween or Thanksgiving, as Stephen Linn explains in his just-published The Ultimate Tailgater’s Handbook (Rutledge Hill Press, 224 pages), and it can get very elaborate indeed. Linn gives instructions on how to tailgate at every level from equipment checklists to recipes. In this excerpt he also offers an exploration of tailgating’s past.

The modern tailgate likely has its roots in college football, first played at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Local author-ities insist it was both a fine game and a fine party. The party and its basic elements, though, might have earlier origins. Two historical events in particular are worth mentioning. Each occurred only a few years before the landmark Rutgers-Princeton game, and together they speak to both the role of managed conflict in bringing people together socially and the basic American approach to a fully mobile, vehicle-based cuisine.

Consider the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Enthusiastic Union supporters from the Washington, D.C., area arrived with baskets of food and shouts of “Go Big Blue!” to watch the opening battle in America’s Civil War. Historians generally agree this was a case of the right idea at the wrong time, war not being a spectator sport. Still, for those who attended, there was socializing and tradition, tension and excitement. And on that day there was even precedent set for future upsets by Southern teams against their Northern opponents. Most important, the incident effectively established definite boundaries and regional differences in tailgating traditions. Clearly, the idea appealed to hungry partisan supporters. They simply needed another eight years for a more limited field of battle to be created.

The second historical event evokes a debt of gratitude all tailgaters should acknowledge. In 1866 Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher and entrepreneurial bon vivant, addressed the cowboys’ need for a rolling chow hall by transforming a U.S. Army Studebaker wagon into the first chuck wagon. The design was simple, compact, and enduring. In fact, Goodnight’s fully equipped mobile kitchen differs very little from those used by the modern tailgaters. Goodnight’s failure to foresee the need for pizza ovens and satellite uplinks in no way diminishes his contribution.

The advent of the automobile led to the democratization of prefootball partying, and the post–World War II popularity of station wagons provided both a name and a platform for the burgeoning practice. During the 1980s and 1990s tailgating took on a life of its own and turned into a social movement of sorts. As gas grills became more portable and coolers grew wheels, rows of parking spots transformed themselves into communities, some with their own names and flags. The ultimate tailgates in these lots are almost worthy of being judged along the lines of parade floats.

Did we mention the satellite dishes? There’s a good chance that the parking-lot hum you hear is from a generator powering a TV tuned to a satellite football package. And TV networks aren’t the only marketers who have leveraged this opportunity. Many people are willing to spend big for the ultimate day in the parking lot. How much? Hammacher Schlemmer, for instance, sells the Grill-and-Cooler Tailgate Set for about $3,000, and that doesn’t even include the food.

The draws that pull today’s well-equipped, well-dressed, well-fed fan to the parking lot are the same ones that drew that crowd in 1869: the friends, the party, the game. In fact, two out of three are sufficient for some fans. And probably in that order: One survey found 30 percent of tailgaters never set foot in the stadium.

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