Picture it: you’re parked in the perfect spot, with a smokin’ hot grill, expertly prepared ingredients, and a recipe that’s gonna knock everybody’s socks off. Your arena? A parking lot near the stadium where a sporting event is scheduled to take place. But you’re focused on a different type of competition, and you aim to win the grand prize. Those season tickets are almost within your grasp. You nervously adjust your lucky apron and get a better grip on your favorite spatula. Ready, set, go!
The game is on—it’s time to tailgate.
While it’s not exactly clear when tailgating competitions came into vogue, they continue to pop up at sporting events—from NFL games to polo matches to Little League—in practically every corner of the country. They’ve even been featured recently on some of the most-watched cooking shows, such as “Top Chef,” “Nailed It!,” and “Chopped.”
Want to get in on the action? We asked a couple of experts to weigh in on how to out-tailgate the competition, so here’s your chance.
Competition Extends from Field to Parking Lot
So, why are tailgating contests so popular? “A lot of it has to do with bragging rights,” says contest judge and TailgatingIdeas.com founder David Lamm. “You might win a plaque or a trophy. It depends who the sponsor is. There are some really good prizes—cash, free products, seat upgrades, even season tickets.”
Lamm suspects tailgating contests grew out of barbecue competitions, which can get pretty heated. Both require outdoor cooking skills, but for tailgaters, there’s the added drive to flaunt their team spirit. “Not all of us can be a professional athlete,” Lamm points out. “We always joke, if our team loses a game, that we didn’t tailgate hard enough. In tailgating culture…we follow a team we want to compete and do well. This is an extension of that.” Which is why, he thinks, the most successful tailgating competitions occur between fans of opposing teams. He adds,“People want to show they’re the best tailgater in the parking lot.”
But there’s more to cook-offs than winning. “I look at it as, the parking lot is like the backyard of America without any fences,” Lamm explains. “It kind of breaks down those literal and figurative walls.” He compares tailgating to a pop-up community with an instant connection: the love of the game, the home team, or even just fandom.
How to Get Your Head in the Game
If you’re thinking about stepping into the tailgating cookoff arena, here’s what you need to know:
- Some contests have higher stakes—and more rules—than others. Pay attention to them, because if you choose not to follow the rules, you won’t stand a chance to win.
- Tailgating is casual, social, and people like to be able to move around, so make sure your dish is easy to eat with one hand. It should not require a table, chairs, and cutlery.
- You should only be using equipment meant for cooking outdoors, such as a grill, a camp stove, or a portable fryer.
- Pay attention to the weather forecast. “If the weather is dicey, it can really hamper your plans,” says Taylor Mathis, author of “The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football, & the South.”
- Practice using your equipment ahead of time at home. You shouldn’t have to worry about working out the kinks while you’re trying to compete.
- If you’re working with a group and not alone, make a plan ahead of time on how to divide and conquer. Make like your favorite team and work together!
- Get creative, come up with a theme, and really go all out with it. Mathis, who attended dozens of college tailgating events to research his book, has seen people decorate their parking spot, wear costumes and use the colors, mascots, and names of the home team or opposing team (which he calls “eating the competition”) to inspire a cohesive menu. “Naming your dishes helps tell a story about what you’re presenting,” he explains.
Whatever you choose to cook, says Lamm, “It’s about taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary.” Whether it’s a really good burger, chili, a side of coleslaw, or a tri-tip steak sandwich with your family’s secret recipe for homemade sauce, aim for the type of dish that will have bystanders asking, “Hey, mind if I try some of that?” in true tailgater fashion.
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Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.