The nip in the air, the sound of foot hitting pigskin, the perfume of pregame burgers; these are signs that football season is here.
But of these, the surest sign is the tailgate, where fans gather in the name of good sports and good food.
The pregame tailgate is an optimistic place. Everyone’s a winner there. It’s a site of anticipated victory and of food to fuel the demands of supporting your team. The tailgate is the 21st century version of picnicking, where America’s obsession with sports and love of good food meet.
Tailgate customs vary around the country. In Hawaii, fans use hibachis to grill fish they caught themselves.
The South features crispy fried chicken and elegant accoutrements. At the University of Mississippi in Oxford, fans enjoy the tailgate scene so much that some don’t go to the stadium, instead staying close to the food and watching on big screen TVs via portable satellite dishes.
Sure, you could just hit the nearest drive-through on the way to the stadium. But don’t your friends - and your team - deserve better? We all know that the quality of the food at the tailgate affects the outcome of the game, right?
With a little planning, you can put together an easy tailgate feast of do-ahead dishes, or have food prepped and ready to fling on your football-shaped portable grill. You may even save a little money, too.
Armed with a great game plan, you’ll earn the title of tailgate season champ.
Tailgating: Have a game plan
Like winning teams on the field, the best tailgaters are well prepared for game day. A checklist can prevent last-minute scrambles and crucial omissions. Ever tried to serve potato salad with little plastic forks because you forgot a serving spoon? Then you know what I’m talking about.
- Plates, napkins, forks, cups, serving spoons. These can be disposable or reusable, depending on your taste. Some tailgaters stock a plastic bin with disposables at the beginning of the season and replenish it as needed. All you have to do is put the bin in the car. Go green with disposables by using compostable utensils and plates made from sugar cane fibers.
- Several large trash bags. Besides containing trash, they can hold ice for serving chilled food or cover stuff in case of rain. Designate one for recyclables.
-Aluminum foil and zip-top plastic bags for storing food.
- Disposable foil pans for holding food prior to grilling, serving cooked food or making an ice bed for items that need to be served cold.
- A roll or two of paper towels, plus disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.
- Plastic cutting boards and knives, preferably color-coded if you’re preparing raw meats on site (red board for meat and green for veggies). Tape sharp knives between two pieces of cardboard for protection.
- Separate, labeled coolers for raw foods, cooked foods/beverages, and ice for drinks.
- Bottle and can openers, and corkscrews. Check the alcohol policy at the lot where you plan to park; some universities don’t allow drinking in campus lots.
- Flashlights or battery-powered lanterns, if the tailgate will continue after dark.
- Small first-aid kit with such things as bandages, medication for insect bites, sunscreen and insect repellant.
- Chairs and tables; tarps to cover muddy ground.
- If you plan to grill, take along helpful items like long-handled tongs and oven mitts, and disposable latex or rubber gloves, for handling raw meat. And the grill, of course.
Don’t forget food safety at home
I know you’d rather talk about the importance of special teams than the need for food safety at the tailgate. But you don’t want to go down in tailgate history as the one who forced your guests to spend the first half at the emergency room.
Watch out for cross contamination. That’s when raw meat or anything that has touched it comes in contact with prepared food that you plan to eat. If you’re preparing meat for grilling at the tailgate, keep any knives, forks, cutting boards, etc. that you’ve used on it away from the rest of the food. Label them and put them in a separate bag when you’re done.
Throw out that marinade - never reuse marinade that has contained raw meat or fish. If you want to baste while you cook, set aside (and label) some of the marinade before adding the meat to the rest.
Handwashing is important. Use disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer to keep you and your cooking area clean.
While the weather is cool this time of year, it’s still a good idea to carry plenty of ice to keep things such as deviled eggs or chicken salad sufficiently chilled both while traveling to the tailgate and during serving.
Put raw meats or seafood for grilling in plenty of ice, and in their own cooler separate from prepared food (that cross-contamination thing again). And be sure they’re sufficiently cooked before eating; bring an instant-read thermometer to make sure.
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