No matter who you are or where you live, rituals are an intrinsic element to human life. Whether they’re based in religion, home, work, the kitchen or elsewhere, people rely on rituals to bring rhythm and order to their lives. They are the place where tradition and superstition intersect, and this is as much the case with tailgating as with any other ritual I can think of.
There is not a more superstitious group of people than sports fans who typically develop their own rituals and turn to traditions to assist them in helping carry their team to victory. Arguably, the cornerstone of every tailgating ritual is the food.
At the best tailgates, preparing the food is as important as the act of eating itself. Because my friends and I at Jim ‘N Nick’s love football passionately (Roll Tide!), we tailgate often - and it almost always involves barbecue. At a recent tailgate, someone asked me, "What is it about barbecue that lends itself so perfectly to the circumstance?"
The question made me pause for a moment because I had never really considered it, but the answer came to me almost immediately. I replied that as a foodways and ritual, barbecue is one of our greatest equalizers. People gather in the spirit of celebration, without concern for their differences. It unites us on common ground, making it the ideal food metaphor for a great tailgate.
The whole hog that we barbecued for the SEC Championship was one of the Mangalitsa pigs we raised. It wasn’t just some pig we purchased. It was ours, from our farm, raised with care, and now sacrificed for a very special occasion. What sets the stage for ceremony and ritual more than a “sacrificial lamb,” so to speak?
We had our pig, we lit a fire - and then stayed up for hours tending to the whole affair. This part is always particularly significant to us because people obviously tailgate to build excitement for the game and cheer their team to victory, but, more broadly, they do it to feel part of a community.
The fire, paired with a whole animal slowly smoking, serves as the centerpiece of the experience. It transports us to a place where people didn’t expect an instant connection with cell phones and the internet, but instead came together purposefully. That’s the part of ritual that helps us maintain the sense of order in our lives that we don’t just need, we crave.
Personally, I love all the elements of whole hog barbecue. Staying up late, drinking a little bourbon and telling stories with my friends, all the while maintaining the fire and caring for a delicious pig.
Ultimately, every ritual has to have a point of culmination. For our tailgate, it was the pig pickin’.
Once the hog was done and everyone gathered together to pick meat, it was time for communion. People stole bites as they cleaned the meat and discussed the feast (and game) with excitement, before we ultimately ate as one.
We are clearly in the business of barbecue at Jim ‘N Nick’s. Like everyone else we get up and go to work every day, but we just happen to be fortunate enough to cook barbecue for a living. Beyond professional life, however, is a community where gathering to share and celebrate our rituals keeps us strongly bonded together.
Barbecue and tailgating may fundamentally be two very simple things, but what they more deeply represent lives long after the fire has died, the embers have cooled and the game is over. Thankfully, we have our ritual to return to when it’s time to celebrate again.
Video by Qin Chen - Special to CNN Original Video