AUSTIN, Texas — For some football fans, the tailgate is as important as the game.
At the core, it’s an opportunity to hang out with friends and fellow fans and eat and drink before watching a game, but for some, tailgating is not just about throwing out a few fold-up chairs and cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on a mini kettle grill.
Each game is an excuse to haul out a generator, flat-screen TV and a satellite dish, a traveling bar with a couple of kegs and a $10,000 custom-made smoker on which to cook enough briskets, pork ribs and sausages to serve every person who stops to ask what smells so good.
For the past five years, Mary Joffre and her brother, Mace Villarreal, have spearheaded Tejana Tailgaters, a group that throws such an elaborate tailgate that it requires a 12-person board to oversee.
With DJs, a big-screen to watch the game and award-winning barbecue, Tejana Tailgaters have won tailgating awards every year since 2010. They host fundraisers in the off-season to help cover some of the costs, including more than $2,000 in fees to reserve parking spaces.
“This is a second family,” she says. “It’s all about dedication, loyalty and hard work. Everybody brings something to put in the pot.”
It’s a family you can join without even rooting for the University of Texas. “We welcome everybody, even the opposing team,” says Joffre.
Moe Guerrero, who custom-built a five-figure smoker in 2005 to take to barbecue competitions, is always in charge of the grill, and on the first tailgate of the year, he was firing up sausages, pork ribs, chicken fajitas and corn on the cob.
No one should walk away hungry, he says. “We just keep throwing food on the grill.”
When the season is over, they host a Christmas party complete with a white elephant gift exchange. Any extra money and donations goes to the dance nonprofit Ballet East.
work for tailgaTing
Courtney Leffall is banking on a future in tailgating.
Leffall, a Dallas native who recently moved to Austin to get his MBA at UT, developed a grill that attaches to the tailgate of a truck, so you can bring your grill anywhere you drive.
With more than 5 million trucks in Texas alone, he knows the uses (and places it might go) are endless.
“You could mount a TV on it,” he says, demonstrating how the holder attaches to the truck bed. Because some universities, including UT, prohibit cooking devices that are attached to vehicles, Leffall’s grill has attachable legs so you can set it up on the ground or on a table. (The product won’t officially launch for a few more months, but you can find out more at TheGrillMobile .com.)
In 2011, Victor Elizalde, another local entrepreneur, saw a niche in the market and created POW! Promos On Wheels, which is essentially an entire tailgate for hire.
A third-generation UT graduate, Elizalde knew a thing or two about tailgating in Austin but saw plenty of newcomers — or even out-of-town visitors — who could use a hand with logistics. He created a custom tailgate trailer that includes an eight-burner stainless steel grill, TVs, stereo and video game consoles. Customers can add catering and bartending services and even tailgate games, such as cornhole and ladder golf.
As a tailgate event planner, Elizalde has watched the quality of food evolve. “In the ’90s, people used to sit in the back of a pickup and, if they were really fancy, had a bag of Taco Cabana breakfast tacos,” he says. “Now, people have satellite TVs, RVs and filet mignon. And it gets bigger and crazier every year.”
He’s fulfilled requests for crawfish boils, a whole roasted pig and even a piata filled with Snickers and little plastic bottles of liquor.
The most serious tailgaters don’t make a living off their parties, but they treat the event like a business nonetheless with websites, Facebook pages and even business cards.
Among them is a card-carrying Justin Barron, who has been hosting a tailgate with his friends at every home game for the past 10 years.
Barron had to commute from Houston for a few years, but he’s back in Austin full time, which gives him more time to spend on figuring out what to throw on the Bubba Keg, a now-discontinued lightweight version of the popular Big Green Egg.
Barron says he mostly cooks your typical tailgate meats, but his recipe for beans is the most requested, so he posted it on the tailgate’s blog, texastailgaters. blogspot.com.
Fashion and fun
North Carolina-based photographer Taylor Mathis loves the customs and passion of tailgaters so much that he spent three football seasons traveling to almost 30 games throughout the South to document them for his new book, “The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football, and the South” (University of North Carolina Press, $30).
“I went to big schools with 100,000 students and small schools with 900 students and learned that it doesn’t matter the size of the school, the level of passion is still there,” he says. “Anywhere on a Saturday, you’ll find people tailgating who are there to have a good time with their friends and their family.”
Mathis, a former collegiate swimmer, says that you can learn a lot about foodways in a particular region by what people serve at their tailgate, such as boudin and gumbo at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge or the individual barbecue styles of the Carolinas, Tennessee or Texas. But one of the dishes that captured Mathis’ eye were the pepperoni rolls at West Virginia University, which are a reminder of the long history of mining in that state.
Some people spend a bunch of time on the food, while others focus on activities, decorations or even fashion, as houndstooth-clad fans in Alabama do in honor of Bear Bryant’s famous hat. “The beauty of tailgating is that it’s whatever makes it fun for you,” he says.
A tailgate for foodies
Just a few blocks away in a tailgate just north of the Erwin Center, Mark Murrell was slicing a dry-aged prime brisket from Salt & Time that he’d splurged on for the first game of the season. “I do feel guilty for using such nice meat” in a cooking technique that was designed to cover up a meat’s flaws, he says, but “I couldn’t help myself.”
While Murrell was dishing out the high-end ‘cue just a few trays down from the Hatch macaroni and cheese created by his sister-in-law, Kristen Smolik, his friend Eddie Tull stood beside a pot full of boiling lard, frying homemade French fries.
“I boiled them in water, vinegar and salt yesterday, fried them once and then froze ‘em on dry ice,” he says in between batches of re-frying. “My job is to make sure the people don’t eat all the meat,” and the fries are only part of the strategy.
He also served jalapeno poppers stuffed with Granny Smith apples and cream cheese and wrapped in bacon that he cured and smoked himself. That same bacon went on top of soft-boiled eggs served with avocados and seasoned salt.
Murrell and Tull are part of a team of twenty- and thirtysomethings who have taken over a tailgate from Kathy Farley, who helped start the tailgate back in the 1990s.
This second-generation tailgate is starting to outshine the food served in the early days, and Farley says she’s happy to watch it evolve.
“The kids have kicked it up a notch. We used to serve snacks and finger foods. These guys serve a meal,” she says.
They did always serve an elaborate Thanksgiving spread for the Texas-A&M game. “It was like the return of the pilgrims out here,” she says, except for the deep-fried turkeys part.
“When the kids wanted to take it on, they shadowed us for a year,” she says, taking notes about all the little details a good tailgate host thinks of: having enough trash bags, ice and utensils, making sure the tents and generators meet the strict rules outlined by UT. “A lot of things you don’t think about until you get here.”
The most important part to keeping a tailgate going for this long is getting everybody to pitch in. “It wouldn’t have lasted this long if they didn’t,” Farley says.
“It’s about tradition and camaraderie, and every year you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a year. We get to watch kids grow and now grandkids,” she says. “We even know the tailgaters next door.”
Addie Broyles writes for the Austin American-Statesman.