Ready for Some FootballThe 2011 NFL season – which many thought would be canceled due to a lockout – officially kicked off this Thursday with a Packers-Saints game that saw quarterback Drew Brees put up strong numbers for this reporter’s fantasy team. And tomorrow is the first Sunday of the season, marking the kickoff for most of the other teams in the league.
For those lucky enough to afford tickets to see their hometown team play, that also means a whole lot of tailgating. And while you can easily show up with a cheap charcoal grill and a cooler full of beer and hot dogs, we’ve decided to gather a few expert tailgating tips to make you look like the smartest fan in the parking lot.
Photo Credit: Tom Rugg
Assess Your Commitment LevelBefore you buy anything, you need to consider how much you’re actually going to be tailgating to determine how much money you should invest in equipment. If you only have tickets to one game this season and plan to watch the rest from your couch, a $20 grill and a cheap cooler is probably sufficient. But if you plan to be a regular fixture at the stadium’s parking lot, it may behoove you to invest in some higher-quality equipment.
“Decide whether you’re a part-timer or the life of the party for the season,” says Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com. “If you’re going to do it all year, it makes sense to get something more durable.”
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Timing is EverythingJoe Ariel, creator of the TheGamedayGourmet.com, says that you should aim for at least three solid hours of tailgating before the game.
“For a 1 p.m. game, get there at 10 a.m., so you have three hours to do it,” Ariel says. “And consider breakfast tailgating: People don’t necessarily want to eat burgers at 10:30, and I’ve seen people do breakfast tacos, biscuits and ham.” (You should also consider morning-appropriate beverages like the Bloody Mary.)
And what time should you pack things up and head into the stadium?
“This time of season, it’s OK to let [your tailgate] drift into the first quarter,” he says. “When it gets more intense and there’s a playoff race, you have to get in [the stadium] at the beginning.”
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Location, Location, LocationIf you get there early enough, hopefully you’ll have your pick of parking spots. So what’s the optimal location to set up shop?
“If you want to get out of there in a hurry [after the game], park by the exit; if you have a small bladder, park by the Porta-Potty,” advises Derek Tabacco, creator of FreeTheFan.com, a social networking site for sports fans. “I tend to favor somewhere close to a fence, so if it starts to rain, I can set up a tent and attach it to the fence. “
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Gas or Charcoal?The grill is going to be the centerpiece of the whole tailgate, so you want to make sure you get this one right. And any time you talk about grills, you revive the old gas-or-charcoal debate.
Of course, for barbecue purists, there’s no debate: Charcoal imparts a smoky flavor that propane can’t match. But when it comes to tailgates, portability and ease of cleanup is a huge question, and may be a point in propane’s favor.
“Gas grills are less hassle, and I can’t stand going places where people have dumped spent charcoal on the ground or in the trash can, where it can start a fire,” says Frietchen, who recommends the $60 Weber Go-Anywhere Grill.
Danielle Turner, a chef who has just released an e-book on grilling, comes down firmly on the side of charcoal. If you’re forced to use a gas grill, she says, you need to make up for it by adding more flavor to the mix.
“I’m going to do everything to punch up the flavor if I’m in a situation with a gas grill,” she says. “I’ll bring a jar of liquid smoke and add a couple of drops into the burger mix or a little into a marinade.”
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The Cooler: Soft or Hard?The classic tailgate cooler is a giant plastic behemoth, packed full of beer and meat. But that’s going to take up a lot of trunk space, and if that’s a concern then you might look into a soft-side model, which may not insulate as long but will be easier to pack up on the way home. While it probably can’t be filled with ice water to keep your beer cold, ice packs should suffice.
In this case, though, you don’t have to choose: Your best bet may be to tote two coolers.
“The best way to do it is to have more than one cooler – one for food, one for drinks,” says Frietchen. “People are in and out of the drinks cooler constantly, so keep the stuff that’s going to be accessible to everyone in one cooler, and food items in another cooler near you.”
We’d recommend a wide-mouth plastic cooler filled with ice water for the beer, then a smaller soft-side cooler with ice packs and food products parked next to the grillmaster. Not only do you keep the food out of the high-traffic cooler, you also prevent the food from getting soaked with ice water and the beer from getting covered in raw meat juices.
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Beer: Cans or Bottles?Anyone who’s seen the beer commercials broadcast during football games has a pretty good idea of the typical tailgating beer: cheap, light beer served in a can. And while that’s perfectly acceptable to most fans, more discerning drinkers may pass up the mass-produced stuff in favor of craft brews.
The only problem there is that glass bottles are a lot heavier than cans and don’t pack nearly as efficiently.
The good news, says Frietchen, is that many craft brewers have begun doing the unthinkable and offering their beer in cans. Our personal favorite is Dale’s Pale Ale, a hoppy brew from the Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado. And Frietchen also recommends Pikeland Pils, brewed by Sly Fox Brewery in Pennsylvania.
Photo Credit: Bernt Rostad
Grilling AlternativesWe’d be willing to wager that 99% of the food that ends up on the grill at tailgates is burgers, hot dogs, sausages or chicken. Why not buck the trend and toss on some portobello mushrooms or shrimp skewers? Back in July we looked at some of the best alternative grill items for your Fourth of July barbecue, and while some are impractical for a tailgate (don’t try to bake a pizza in the parking lot), many will surprise and delight your fellow tailgaters.
Photo Credit: Stacey Huggins
Kick Things Up a NotchWe don’t mean to imply that burgers and franks can’t be exciting, though. There are plenty of ways to give traditional grill fare some flare with spice rubs, marinades and sauces.
“There are ways to elevate the plain old stuff of summer,” says Turner. When it comes to burgers, she says, tossing in some Sriracha sauce (about a tablespoon) can introduce a good amount of spice, though she warns that putting in too much liquid will make the patties prone to falling apart.
Marinating chicken or other meats? She recommends a cup of marinade for every one-and-a-half to two pounds of meat, and says to marinate it at least overnight; don’t start trying to prepare a marinade at the game. And make sure to have two separate batches: one for actual marinating, and another that hasn’t touched raw meat and is used for brushing the meat while it grills.
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Fun and GamesMost veteran tailgaters say that you should bring something to keep you occupied during the tailgate.
“It’s always great to bring a football to toss, or better yet, cool lawn games like bean bag toss or corn hole,” says Ariel, who advises against the unpredictable frisbee for tailgating situations.
Tabacco says that he likes to bring a flat-screen TV, especially if it’s a late afternoon or evening game and he wants to take in the early games while he tailgates. Almost all NFL games are on network television, which means that you can get an inexpensive TV antenna at RadioShack to pick up the broadcast. And he says that there’s no need to set up a generator – just get an A/C adapter to plug into your cigarette lighter and run the TV on the car battery. You can even pack some lawn chairs and bring the living room to the parking lot.
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Make the Cleanup EasyObviously you want to go with disposable plates and cutlery to make cleanup easier, and you should buy in bulk to get the best prices. Even if you’re not going to do a ton of tailgating this season, you’ll eventually make use of it, and it’s not like paper plates are going to go bad over the winter.
You’ll also want to have a way to wipe down the various surfaces – from hands to bumpers to grills – that will inevitably get messy during the tailgate. For this Frietchen recommends a simple pack of baby wipes. You may get some funny looks, but at least you’ll be clean. And they’ll also come in handy if the Porta-Potty runs out of toilet paper.
Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan
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