EXTREME Tailgating

By Jim Duncan

Much more than burgers and beer

One should expect anything when tailgating near the College World Series in Omaha.

The best story I have ever heard about extreme tailgating is likely apocryphal. Like the best urban myths, though, hardly anyone doubts it because it perfectly fits most preconceptions, in this case about Oakland Raider fans. Of all the fans of American sports teams, these are usually perceived to be the most extreme in costume, violence and trueheartedness. A large percentage come from California desert towns such as Stockton, Modesto, Lodi, Bakersfield and Fresno, also the birthing grounds of edgy geniuses such as William Saroyan, Chris Isaak, many of the post Hell’s Angels biker gangs, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas.

The story, retold like an oral virus, goes like this. A food writer is looking for tailgating stories in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot before a Raiders game. He begins on a Thursday night and returns each day as the crowd gets bigger. He finds lots of wild behavior and heavy drinking but is told that the real show begins late Friday when a guy named Clay shows up, usually with a truckload of wood to burn and a few freshly dressed large animal carcasses to cook. The writer finally meets Clay, and nothing disappoints him. He even learns a recipe for spit roasting a deer stuffed with boned rabbits.

To conclude, he asks Clay for his full, or real name, and phone number so that his editor can verify the story’s authenticity.

“No can do. Conditions of parole. I am not really here,” Clay responds.


Tailgating attire in Iowa is as extreme as the weather.

In 2000, I wrote a “ten great places to tailgate” story for USA Today with my longtime partner Shirley Fong-Torres. College football fans more than pro, we selected university sites at Texas, Florida, LSU, Hawaii, UCLA, Washington, Air Force, the University of North Carolina and Harvard, plus NFL sites in Baltimore and Green Bay.

We had no idea how seriously people took their favorite tailgating places until the mail came flowing in. The nicest hate mail came from the Tar Heel state where fans of North Carolina State were aghast that we chose their rival over them. A wealthy fan and the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce invited us to visit the errors of our system. North Carolina State, we admitted, offered vastly superior tailgating. One of the State boosters was Big Ed Watson, a towering Raleigh restaurateur whose diner near the legislature exuded power broking pheromones. Big Ed was
also famous for staffing his restaurants with ex-cons.

“Yes, sir, I believe in second chances. There are only two types of criminals I will not extend that trust to — bigamists and embezzlers. They have proven they cannot keep a trust.” Shirley asked him about murderers. “Oh, missy, murderers deserve a second chance more than most. I got a murderer over there on my cash register. Truth is, most people who get murdered need murdering,” he answered.

Raleigh showed us some of the best extreme tailgating, in piney wood lots with whole animals on wood fired spits (illegal in Raleigh otherwise). Baton Rouge provided a separate stage and peculiar style of cooking from every parish in Louisiana. Their fans love tailgating so much they star at it every year in Omaha during the college World Series, even when their team does not make the field. One year, the Omaha World Herald wrote an editorial titled “A Great Day for the Local Economy” after LSU beat a team with hardly any fans to speak of. Hawaii tailgating is probably not extreme at all to Hawaiians, but Aloha Stadium is the only place I ever saw whole raw tuna at several stations in the parking lot.

Iowans have come a long way in extreme tailgating. Caterer Cyd Koehn recalls just how far.


Cyd Koehn will present breakfast, lunch and dessert buffets at the Iowa vs. Iowa State game. Photo courtesy of Catering by Cyd.

“When I graduated from Iowa State in 1991, tailgating consisted of a grill, a folding table, burgers, sausages, buns, chips and condiments. Beer was often warm. Now you have to have different glasses for red and white wines and other drinks too. There is an entire small city of corporate tents with professional catering staffs and bartenders,” she said.

What is the biggest tailgating event Koehn ever catered?

“I fed 1,600 people for two days at a golf tournament at Glen Oaks. I had a refrigerated truck and a staff of 50. We kept three buffet lines going constantly for breakfast, lunch, appetizers, dinner and more appetizers. We also had three bars. It was hosted in a private home, so we had access to running water. That’s huge,” she explained.

Koehn thinks tailgating has grown so large in Iowa that it is the equivalence of planning a wedding.

“Make that an outdoor wedding because weather planning is huge. Football season can mean 90 degrees in the shade, or cold rain and snow,” she said. She has catered events at the Iowa Speedway in Newton when the temperature was more than 100 degrees F. “You can’t imagine how much ice and water you have to bring in and replenish,” she said.

What are the most extreme things she has cooked for such parties?

“Oh, one client is a wild game hunter. He travels the world hunting. I have fed his guests feasts that included mule deer, wild boar, pheasants, quail, alligator, buffalo, elk and rabbits.”

What does one serve with all that meat?

“I am a huge supporter of ‘buy fresh, buy local,’ so I use what is in season. I love Iowa Choice Harvest products, Lee’s Greens and Cleverley Farms among others. My deviled eggs, from Farmer Greg, and my apple pie and apple crisp are almost always the first things to disappear on a buffet,” she said.

What is she doing for this year’s Iowa vs. Iowa State game?

“I will be feeding 560 people that are guests of Business Solvers. They will have a huge tent with a dozen large screen TVs for people who don’t want to go inside the stadium. The technology is mind boggling. I never imagined you could plug that many TVs in outdoors. Everyone is being bussed in, so no one has to worry about driving after drinking. I will serve breakfast, lunch and appetizers and will have a refrigerated truck again, so that helps with weather planning,” she said. ♦


Categories: The Feature

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