This Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will meet the San Francisco 49ers in Miami Gardens, Florida, for Super Bowl LIV. Yes, I had to Google which teams are playing. No, I wasn’t looking forward to the ads about Mr. Peanut’s death originally scheduled to air during the game. Yes, the NFL is a cursed institution. No, I don’t care who’s playing halftime. But I do care about promise of fun company and salty snacks — the perks of pretending to be invested in championship-level football for an afternoon. In fact, I’d give up my comfort on the couch to modify the scenario somewhat.
Now, hear me out: Forget the Super Bowl, and move the party to a parking lot.
I’m talking about the platonic ideal of a sports-related social gathering: the tailgate. A lot of people take it for granted — the genius of a booze-addled BBQ outside the stadium, I mean — and that, quite frankly, doesn’t sit well. Why? Because the tailgate is the product of my too-often maligned home state, New Jersey. In addition to being the place that gave us The Sopranos (and therefore SopranosCon), Jersey is responsible for legitimizing this fairly dirtbag behavior. By most accounts, the first modern tailgate took place on the occasion of the first intercollegiate football game, between the College of New Jersey, which would later snobbishly rebrand as “Princeton University,” and Rutgers College. Also, Rutgers won, so fuck off, Princeton. Supper club-ass chumps.
Anyway, legend has it that spectators got together before the main event to “to grill sausages at the ‘tail end’ of a horse,” hence the origin of the term “tailgate.” I can’t tell you what was supposed to be beneficial in cooking your sausages close to a horse’s butt, though I also can’t put it past Jersey folk to do it just for comedic value. And that’s part of the tailgate lifestyle, too. Sure, these cookouts can get a bit rowdy, but their mood isn’t dictated by the fickle fortunes of a team. Good vibes abound, my friend.
There are a couple caveats to the 1869 tailgate story, however. One is that something you might consider a previous tailgate happened back in 1861, during the First Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia, at the outset of the American Civil War. A bunch of psychos from Washington, D.C. (including, of course, several members of Congress) went up there with picnic supplies and opera glasses, expecting to watch the Union Army crush the Confederate rebels. Instead, they had to flee as Yankee forces beat their surprise retreat. The other important element that predates the Rutgers/Princeton tailgate was the 1866 invention, on a Texas ranch, of a rolling “chuck wagon,” or a U.S. Army Studebaker wagon remolded as a mobile kitchen to feed cowboys. Yeehaw.
Now, slap together those two ideas, take out the bloody war and the tough ranch work, and you’ve got the essence of the modern tailgate — which was further necessary because you couldn’t buy hot dogs at football games in the 19th century. Today, that arrangement endures thanks to bans on alcohol sales in most college stadiums; the only way to develop a suitable buzz is to drink such an irresponsible amount outside that you don’t need any more for the few hours of actual play. Also, if you prefer (or couldn’t get a ticket), you can spend the entire day in the parking lot, listening to the broadcast while enjoying a dozen rounds of cornhole and beer pong. Blessed.
Again, though, I must insist that New Jersey get the credit for this. In fact, New Brunswick, the town where Rutgers is based, escalated the tailgate model with the so-called “grease trucks,” multiple food vendor vehicles parked in a shared lot. For years, before and after Rutgers games, students would flock to the spot as a rendezvous and dine on “Fat Sandwiches,” monstrous subs piled with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, french fries and cheesesteak. Personally, I was never able to finish one without puking an hour afterward. I’m sad to say that as of 2013, however, the grease trucks were deemed too powerful and therefore disbanded, with alleged plans to situate them separately throughout campus. I hope you’ll keep them in your prayers.
Point is, whatever your regional tastes and traditions around tailgating, New Jersey set the bar, and we kept raising it. So this Super Bowl season, raise a sauce-drenched rib and a Solo cup of piss beer to honor a state that never seems to get its due… not least because two football teams play there while acting as if they represent New York. We reveled in the kegs and eggs, the timeless shindig surrounding the field, and we were delighted to share this model with the rest of the country.
You’re fuckin’ welcome.