Behold, The Tailgate Party

In honor of Super Bowl 50, Amy Mackie looks at a historically American approach to partying.

A tailgate party outside of a football game between Yale and Colgate Universities, 1954. Image via Shorpy.

We’re not here for the game. The game is nothing. The game is crap. The game makes me sick. The real reason we Americans put up with sports is for this: Behold, the tailgate party, the pinnacle of human achievement.

Homer Simpson in The Simpsons

In the hours leading up to American football games and other sporting events, in empty parking lots throughout the country, color-coordinated crowds gather to engage in unmitigated revelry. They are armed with gigantic televisions powered by extension cords running from RVs, SUVs, and generators. They tote steaming pots of chili or gumbo or some “secret” family recipe and, of course, copious amounts of booze. Excess to excess is the name of the game here. This pursuit, with wholly American roots, has come to be known as “tailgating.” This type of tailgating is not to be confused with the act of driving too close to another vehicle’s rear bumper; football tailgating is a party like no other. Homer Simpson is not alone in his appreciation of this social activity that draws hundreds of thousands of people each year. While it has been elevated to religion in the American South, it is a pastime that is popular across the nation.

While tailgating aficionados continuously perfect their methods to adapt to the challenges of partying al fresco, it is an exceedingly old activity. Football, and subsequently tailgating, emerged in America in the 1860s and 1870s as a post Civil War activity, says writer Sally Jenkins, author of The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation. Though it has been around for a very long time, the general premise of tailgating has not changed. NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon states, “Part picnic, part pep rally, part drunken revelry, tailgating traces its roots to 1869 and what’s believed to be the first intercollegiate football game—between Rutgers University and Princeton University. Fans arrived in carriages, bringing picnics.” Though there are many different origin stories of this unusual activity, tailgating has frequently been likened to the picnickers who famously frolicked a short distance from Bull Run Creek in Virginia on Sunday, July 21, 1861, hoping to observe the activities of those fighting in one of the first bloody massacres of the American Civil War. As historian John J. Hennessy published in his book The First Battle of Manassas:

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, steady streams of would-be spectators found their way to the heights of Centreville, fully five miles from the battlefield. “They came in all manner of ways,” wrote a Union officer, “some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback, or even on foot. Apparently everything in the shape of vehicles in and around Washington had been pressed into service for the occasion.”

It is particularly interesting that the types of vehicles the spectators drove are mentioned as the name tailgating derived from the act of serving food from the tailgate of one’s car or truck. Vehicles (now in the form of giant trucks and RVs, often void of an actual tailgate) are still major players in this activity. Hennessy, however, is careful to emphasize in his writing the way this story has been embellished over the years. While the parallels to modern tailgating may be a stretch, there is undeniably some commonality when considering that hordes of people arrived hours before an event, in their vehicles, to hang out with the solitary hope of observing some brutal action—or simply as an excuse to get drunk.

Football players have been compared to the gladiators of ancient Rome, and the game itself mirrors the strategies employed in combat. An Associated Press article, “American football prepares Israeli teens for military combat,” published on December 17, 2015, quoted coach Itay Ashkenazi (the son of a former Israeli military chief as well as a special forces commando). Ashkenazi says, “Football is a great tool for building a young man. The mentality of football is very similar to what you try to instill in elite combat units.” Football is without a doubt linked to the art of war, though it would fail to be a spectacle if it were not for its fans. Statistics reveal that the average tailgater is a white, educated man with money to spend on partying. Women and children do participate, but it is an overwhelmingly male-dominated hobby, which brings to mind the all-male social groups, or krewes, that are abundantly visible in New Orleans this time of year. These groups spend large sums of money annually in preparation for Mardi Gras season. Food and drink are often a part of their events, though, unlike tailgating, they are not relegated to the outdoors. The necessity of gathering outside (and in close proximity to a stadium) seems to be what sets tailgating apart from other similar social gatherings. And since tailgaters often don’t even attend the game, the activity of tailgating is not necessarily pre-emptive, but the main event.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, where opera fans have adopted the tailgating practice, the act has been pushed to lavish extremes. Before opening night performances at the Santa Fe Opera House, champagne flows while celebrity chefs present meals based on the theme of each opera. And, though the crowd and type of fare may be different than those at a typical American football tailgating party, both forms of tailgating similarly emphasize the commitment of fans in celebrating their activity of choice. One primary difference to note is that opera tailgaters most certainly attend the opera performance that evening.

The Simpsons is only one of many mainstream television shows that have attempted to reflect the potential absurdity in the art of tailgating. In its 2014 episode, “Pull-out King,” Portlandia spoofed the subject by staging their characters at a Prairie Home Companion tailgating event. While most football tailgaters drink beer and don commercially produced sports paraphernalia, Prairie Home Companion tailgaters drank yerba mate and sold recycled, handmade t-shirts. The popular podcast, RadioLab, recently invited their listeners to a “tailgating party” in Brooklyn as part of a segment about American football to contribute sound effects for the show. The group was perhaps predictably absent of football fans or people who had actually tailgated a day in their lives.