Do you enjoy a mouthwatering buffet of your favorite foods? Is your ideal Saturday one spent with your friends and family? Is there a college or university you feel a loyalty toward? Congratulations! You could become a tailgater.

There’s no membership to obtain or test to pass. You have the intangible skills necessary to spend game day tailgating. Now all you need are the tangible skills. Don’t worry; you’ll learn about those later. I’ll share with you the tools, techniques, and recipes that will lead you to a successful game-day tailgate. Consider this a warning, though: once you start tailgating, particularly in the South, you won’t want to stop. On Saturdays in the fall, Southern campuses are taken over by century-old celebrations that bring fans by the thousands. A game day in the South is unlike any other. And as amazing as game days are, none of this could be possible without you, the fan.

I’ve always admired creative and passionate people. The football fans I met at college campuses across the South are exactly that. They love their teams and families and enjoy celebrating both. For three months during the fall, many lucky Southerners become college football tailgaters. They pack up their cars, RVs, boats, or buses and make their way to the college campuses of their favorite teams. On game day, they gather with friends and family, dress in sacred colors, and cheer their teams.

These pre- and postgame celebrations are for everyone. Tailgating is an activity for all ages, from nine months to ninety-nine years, and it appeals to anyone who loves great food, being around loved ones, and supporting his or her team.

For two and a half seasons, I traveled across 12 states to experience the different game-day traditions, food, and fan bases that make Southern tailgating unique. On every campus, there were allegiances to different teams, but all tailgaters shared in the same hospitality that the South is known for. When one tailgater was in trouble, the tent next door gladly lent some extra charcoal or offered a roll of paper towels. I never went hungry and was always asked if I needed a drink or a plate of food. The tailgaters I met during my trip always made me feel welcome and showed that same respect to one another.

Remember, you can’t control how your team performs on the field. All you can do is throw the best pregame celebration possible. Good luck to you and your team. Happy tailgating!

Tailgating Food Explained

On game day, fans may do anything from cooking a few burgers on a grill in the bed of a pickup to arriving at their tailgating sites with a trailer-sized pig cooker and two whole hogs smoking away. Tailgating spreads will feed anywhere from two people to more than a hundred. A tailgater does all this not out of the comfort of his or her own kitchen, but in a parking space on his or her favorite college campus. Tailgaters are more than just fans; they are on-site caterers who host parties with restaurant-quality food in an environment that was never intended to be a kitchen. Hosting these events requires a crafty and thoughtful approach to menu planning.

At a tailgate, guests typically will spend the day standing with a drink in one hand while enjoying the pregame festivities. Have you ever tried cutting up food on a plate while standing, much less while holding a drink? You end up with more food on the ground than in your mouth. If the food you serve isn’t in bite-sized portions or has to be cut with a fork, it should be served between a bun, on a stick, or in a cup or a bowl. Any menu items that require a knife to eat should be carved prior to serving.

As host, you’ll want to feed everyone who comes to your tailgate. Throughout the day, you may have multiple sets of guests who drop by at any given time. Serving food that can sit for extended periods of time or can be made to order promptly means no guest will go away hungry.

Serving food that can be eaten while standing up and that does not perish quickly is important for planning a successful tailgating menu. The most essential element of your game-day menu, though, is the element of fun. Serve the food that brings you joy to share with those around you. For many tailgaters, showing support for their favorite team via the food they serve and how they serve it makes their game day special. Arkansas fan Wes Shirley told me that for breakfast, “Razorback fans must have either bacon or ham on game day, which is believed to get the spirit of the hog in you.” Samantha Fechtel always begins her Texas game days with a burnt-orange-colored breakfast of pumpkin pancakes and mimosas. WVU fan Cindy Coffindaffer always makes blue and gold thumbprint cookies for dessert on game day.

Tailgating menus will vary from campus to campus, but portable, accessible, and fun food is what you’ll find on tailgating menus throughout the South.

Packing for a Tailgate

Storing, cooking, and serving dishes at a tailgate isn’t the same as cooking them for a dinner party in your home. When you arrive at the tailgate, usually a spot in a grassy field or a space in an asphalt lot, you’ll find no electricity, no running water, no kitchen counter, and no kitchen table. If you didn’t pack what you need, it won’t be there. Preparation leads to successful on-site cooking.

Preparing your ingredients the night before will save cooler space and time and will help ensure you don’t forget anything.

Chopping, Dicing, and Cutting

For a more enjoyable tailgate, chop, dice, and cut ingredients the night before the game. Game day will be much more enjoyable if you aren’t shedding tears from chopping onions while socializing with your friends. Also, there may be weather elements (wind, rain, or snow) that could make preparing ingredients difficult. Store prepared items in labeled, sealable containers. Refrigerate them overnight and transfer them to your tailgate site in a cooler on game day.

Measuring Spices, Dry Goods, and Liquids

Instead of bringing a five-pound bag of sugar or a whole gallon of milk, measure out dry ingredients and liquids at home. Put the premeasured items in sealable containers to transport them to your tailgate. Tightly seal the containers to prevent spills. On hot days, keep any dairy products, meats, or other items that need refrigeration in a cooler until you’re ready to use them.

Baked Goods

If you have the ability and are comfortable with baking at your tailgate, feel free to prepare any baked goods you wish on-site. However, baking muffins, cakes, and cookies the day before will save you time and provide guests with a delicious treat to eat upon their arrival.

Meats, Marinades, and Rubs

Marinating, assembling, trimming, and brining should be done prior to your arrival at the tailgate. When you’re smoking a shoulder or grilling ribs, make sure to pay attention to the specific recipe’s instructions about when to apply the rub. If you’re bringing rubs and sauces to your tailgate, pack them in a sealable container, ready for use.

Packing Your Cooler

Sealable plastic containers come in a variety of sizes that will stack easily in your cooler. Labeling the contents of each container will prevent confusion when cooking multiple meals. For easier cooking, stack containers in order with the ingredients for the first menu items you’ll prepare on top.

To keep your cooler cold, use reusable freezer packs rather than ice. Freezer packs are preferable because they will not fill the cooler with water as they melt. Cooking multiple meals throughout the day? Think about how long some ingredients will need to stay cold. If your tailgate menu is large, you may need separate coolers for each meal.

Packing Your Team Spirit

Tailgaters take pride in using their creativity to show their team spirit. Throughout my travels, I saw no shortage of ways in which tailgaters were able to add some personal style to their game-day setup. Virginia Tech fan Allison Goin Wash incorporates maroon and orange into her tailgate whenever possible. She told me a little bit about what she brings to show her team spirit on game day: “Our school colors are in everything from food colorings to drinks, plates, napkins, tablecloths, serving dishes, and utensils. This year, I’m really stepping up my tailgating game and making a much more colorful and lively tailgate (battery-operated chandelier for the tent, floor mats/welcome mats, chalkboard with menu, etc.). My favorite tailgating piece has been our maroon Ford F-150 (yes, we would only buy a maroon truck).” Allison went on to tell me that on game days in Blacksburg, “even the trees wake up donning their best maroon and orange.”

I’ve seen thousands of fans who take Allison’s approach to team spirit with their tailgating supplies. When you’re choosing cups, plates, napkins, and utensils, make the extra effort to find these items in your favorite team’s colors. Your tailgating tent, table, and accessories are all ways you can show pride in your team. I’ve seen tailgaters go as far as having their grills powder-coated in Kentucky blue at an auto body shop.

Many tailgaters throughout the South choose to add a level of sophistication to their game-day spreads. It isn’t uncommon to see appetizers served on silver platters or china with prints that incorporate a particular team’s colors. Chandeliers hanging from tents, large vases with ornate floral arrangements, and fine linens draped across tiered serving displays are ways tailgaters choose to present their food.

Incorporating your team’s colors doesn’t end with what you eat or even with what you eat on. Every team has easily attainable pom-poms and koozies in their school colors. Some tailgates will display a larger-than-life inflatable version of their team’s mascot. Otherwise, telescoping flagpoles are a popular way to fly your team’s colors and show your allegiance.

Cornhole, or bag toss, is currently one of the most popular tailgating games. On game day, you’ll see foursomes trying to toss beanbags through circular holes in an elevated rectangular board. The object of the game is the same everywhere, but the designs painted on the boards vary greatly. Tailgaters take pride in having custom-painted boards. From simple color-blocking patterns to intricate illustrations of a team’s mascot, cornhole boards are a way for fans to show school spirit and have fun at the same time.

A few fan bases have unique items that appear at tailgates and aren’t usually found on packing lists. At Auburn University, tailgaters always have at least one full roll of toilet paper in their tent. The toilet paper is saved for after the game. When Auburn wins, fans will rush from the stadium to TP the oak trees in Toomer’s Corner.

The cowbell is an essential accessory for all Mississippi State fans. The bells are welded to handles and decorated in a variety of maroon and white color combinations. There’s no clear understanding of when fans started to use cowbells, but over the years, fans in Starkville have nevertheless adopted the cowbell as a part of their game-day packing list. They are brought to every tailgate and can be heard ringing throughout the day. Many stadiums outside of Starkville don’t allow them inside, but that hasn’t deterred Bulldog fans or the cowbell’s place in Mississippi State game-day tradition.

From The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football, and the South by Taylor Mathis. Text and photographs copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Taylor Mathis. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.