Drew Robinson is the pitmaster at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. He previously wrote about serving up gratitude in trouble times and why barbecue matters.
There is something magical about fall. You begin to feel a chill in the air, notice the blue hue of the sky deepening and leaves of grass growing greener. The experience is different for everyone, but what we all know is that football season is here.
The feeling never hits me the same way twice, but I can always count on it happening as game day approaches and the ritual of the tailgate can be seen spilling onto the streets outside the stadium. Team colors catching my eye, the smell of a good stadium dog, an assured sense of victory are each bits of nostalgia and emotion that bring me back time and again to take part in the madness that is game day.
All of us at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q are football fans; there is no question about that, and we love football fans far and wide. We feel the fervor of football and feed off the passion of other fans. The question is, “why?”
Many descriptors come to mind - obsessed, passionate, maniacal - but, to be true, we should stay with the root: fan or fanatic. Fans are fanatic and fanatics are, by definition, excessive in their enthusiasm and uncritical in their devotion. We will spend all week preparing for a few hours and an entire year preparing for a few months (Cue Buddy Holly: “My love is bigger than a Cadillac”).
Still we are left with, “why?” Centuries ago people filled the Coliseum and demanded blood, nothing was sacred in that air but victory! We now know that letting a man be consumed by an animal for pure pleasure is wrong - at least by our current code of ethics - however, one man can still defeat another for the sake of institutional honor adorned with colors, shoulder pads and eye black that would make the gladiators of old proud.
In the current tradition, we have our Heisman trophy winners, our national champions, our heroes. These are the men who “left it all on the field.”
So, what do we do? What can we do? The tribe must come together. My brothers and sisters, who are college football enthusiasts, all know that Saturday signals “the gathering.” We dress for the occasion in things reserved only for that day - it’s often better that way. We drink, cheer, make bets, and philosophize deeply in ways no credible philosopher would descend to do, but would certainly relish the thought of.
And, of course, we cook. All of this is labeled as “the tailgate,” a ritual born off the back-of-truck tailgates where common folk would gather to escape the pressures of the world and revel in their team for a period of time.
In our native South, the scent of charcoal and scorched wood guides folks to the best of tailgate spots. We are barbecue people. Pig is the meat of choice and the noblest feast of all is the whole hog. Sure, we may eat hot dogs and seven layer dip as hors d’ oeuvres but our true feast is the pig. There may be a Jell-O shot randomly interspersed with a bite of nachos and in those moments, we feast with the indignant pride of a people gorging themselves on the future victory of their team.
Those moments are perfect unto themselves, but when the pig is done, we each take a moment of reverence, learned from Sundays in the South, before descending into a frenzy that would inspire William Golding to devour what (for all practical purposes) is the pre-game sacrificial lamb.
The people you find at a tailgate come from all walks of life. It’s a time when our place in the social order doesn’t really matter because, just for today, we all eat as kings as we cheer for our gladiators. Once we lick the grease from our fingers and hoist a final toast, it’s time to go cheer on the champions - in the South, this frequently begins with putting a flask in our bootleg.
Then, we begin our trek from tailgate to the stadium. We will cheer and recoil in anguish throughout the event doing our best to provide emotional support to the warriors on the gridiron. Ghosts of the past who have built these times and places will fuel the fire of our passion while we pray for victory.
But regardless of victory or defeat when it is all over, the tribe will make its way back to where it came from. And, when we do, he who finds the last bits of outside meat still clinging to the coal-stained grates will eat once more and revel in the dream that his team, his gladiators and heroes will march toward victory once again.
Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and these next two weeks, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. Catch up on past coverage and read the live blog from our Secret Supper in Chicago on Wednesday night.
Best thing about tailgating is the team spirit and the food!
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