Depending on where you live, tailgating can be as simple as a keg, a bag of chips, and store-bought dip, or it can be as elaborate as a wedding feast. John Currence, the chef and owner of the City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi, is a true master of the latter style of tailgating.
“There are people who dedicate their lives to this,” he says of the crowd at the nearby University of Mississippi, otherwise known as Ole Miss, considered one of the South’s most iconic spots for tailgating.
Curren has catered tailgates for 300 people, at a cost of up to $110 per person (which Currence claims is modest by big-time tailgate standards). City Grocery has an entire page on its website devoted to catered tailgate dishes, and Currence is writing a book about the topic that’s due out next fall.
Naturally, the James Beard Award-winning chef has strong advice for how fans should—and shouldn’t—tailgate.
Embrace the hassle
Popping open a trunk or lifting a hatchback is a thing of the past. Many schools, like Mississippi, restrict tailgating to specific areas, which only leads to competition for prime space. These tailgates involve canopies, tables, and chairs, platters of thoughtfully presented food, decorations, and cooking on site, if it’s allowed.
That takes planning. Currence estimates that an elaborate tailgate takes three days of preparation. For a Saturday game, count on spending time on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday getting ready.
The key is organize your tasks, from least-time-sensitive to last-minute. On Wednesday, gather the gear you need on site, such as plastic arm chairs, folding lounge chairs with cup holders, coolers and whatever shelter you need.
Thursday, organize your serving pieces, cups, utensils and plates, and remember to bring trash bags. On Friday, start in on the food. (More on what to serve in a minute.)
Be forewarned. If you decide to tackle this type of big-deal tailgate, he says, “it’s going to be a gigantic pain in the ass.” He suggests you “embrace your enthusiasm at first, because your enthusiasm is going to wane” as it becomes clear how much work is involved. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Choose fellow tailgaters carefully
Many tailgate hosts make the mistake of thinking that because they get along with friends or colleagues, they will be good people to help with a tailgate. Not so, Currence says.
The most important thing, he says, “is to find a solid group that you know you can rely on.” That means people who won’t just mooch off your spread, but those willing to set up and dismantle.
Currence and his business partner once put on a tailgate for a group of 300 people who traveled New Orleans when Ole Miss played in the Sugar Bowl.
Organizers told them they had to pack up an hour before the game, often a requirement in school-sanctioned tailgate areas where loiterers aren’t welcome during game time.
“We needed everybody who was part of the party to help us break it down,” he says. Instead, “Everybody scattered.”
So, in planning your guest list, think about who will come early, and who will stick around to help when it’s over.
Go beyond the standard menu
Currence says if there’s something universal about Ole Miss tailgates, it’s that everyone serves the same thing: chicken tenders.
He measures the size of his tailgate business by how many 55 gallon drums of oil he uses for the day’s events. Normally, it’s about three-quarters of a drum. His record was two-and-a-half drums.
“That’s an enormous amount of chicken tenders,” he says.
As a result, “I like to see things at a tailgate that aren’t a cliché. Meditate on things that are interesting, and that are not subject to decay.”
Even up north, September college football games can be played in 90-degree heat. That rules out later-season staples like chili and hot cider, but still leaves lots of options.
Shrimp are easy to make ahead. You can steam or boil them the night before, then chill them overnight. Crudités and fruit plates also are no-fuss dishes that you can get from a supermarket, if you don’t have time to assemble your own.
Currence recommends square desserts that can fit on a napkin—brownies, lemon bars, blondies, and small tarts work great. But cakes and pies that have to be sliced and eaten with a fork can get messy, both for guests and on your table.
Currence says his sausage balls—sausage encased in pastry—are a big hit, with the chef selling between 80 and 100 pounds per game. Being in the South, Currence says he sells a lot of pimiento cheese, as well as what he calls Mississippi caviar—black-eyed pea salad. Hummus and other spreads work well, just don’t forget the pita bread.
As with any party, bring lots of ice; depending on the temperature, you can fill platters with ice, and set plates on top of them to keep things cool.
Serve anything hot that should be eaten hot first; then let guests graze the rest of the time.
Don’t fear mayonnaise
Some tailgaters try to avoid dishes with mayonnaise, like potato salad and pasta salad, thinking they can spoil if they’re left out. Currence has little patience for that theory.
“Stop worrying about mayonnaise,” he grumbles, noting that jarred mayonnaise contains plenty of preservatives that will make it last the length of a football game.
“If you make chicken salad, it’s going to be fine over the course of a tailgate,” Currence goes on.
That also goes for dips made with mayo. Currence is a fan of smoked fish dip, which can be served with toasted bread rounds or Triscuits. Another variation is to use crab instead of fish, and you can always make spinach dip for people who insist on eating something green.
Punch > beer
Beer might be a tailgate must-have at Big 10 games. But at Southeastern Conference games, Currence estimates 70% of the drinks he serves at tailgates are punches, because they’re a major time-saver on game day.
He makes the base punch in a big cooler jug, and then floats sparkling wine or ginger beer on top. Just add ice. The base tends to strengthen the longer it sits, so have mixers like soda water or seltzer on hand if you want your guests to actually make it to the game.
If it’s a hot day, be sure to bring water. You can fill up a cooler dispenser halfway with ice and cucumber or orange slices, and let the ice melt down during the tailgate to keep guests hydrated.