Champions of the Tailgate: How the South Tackles the Tradition Better Than Anywhere Else

For game-day revelers across the South, the food rivals the football.

On a sunny Saturday morning in Athens, Georgia, a car maneuvers onto the University of Georgia campus, angling for a spot as close as possible to the driver's tailgate tent. She has come to drop off an overflowing platter of perfect pimiento cheese sandwiches. The woman exits her car into a sea of Bulldog fans, places the platter on the ground, and turns to gather her other belongings. In that instant, a young man swoops in, swipes the tray, and flees the scene. 

Food writer and cookbook author Rebecca Lang recalls, "She comes down to our tailgate and says, 'Somebody stole the pimiento cheese sandwiches!'" Several men—intended recipients of the sandwiches—embark on a mission to find the culprit and recover the contraband. No such luck. "It was so funny," Lang says. "Only in college football."

You have just witnessed three hallmarks of Southern tailgating: abundant food, community engagement, and a tad of debauchery. 

A football pennant with the quote "Our whole life revolves around what time kickoff is."
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

 Whether we're showing our spirit (usually bourbon) or indulging in ribs and potato salad, Southerners don't just tend to go overboard on game day—we intend to. Fall Saturdays offer a release valve that we anticipate all year long. To be sure, the whole country loves to tailgate, or at least, 70 million of us do, according to Freedom Grill Inc. But Google any ranking of "best" college football tailgates, and you'll find that Southern schools make up more than half the list.

So why did the practice become so popular—and frankly, extreme—in the South? You won't find the answer in history books. Yes, one of America's first documented "tailgates" happened in Virginia at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, but the fans were for the North. The practice became forever associated with football during the inaugural Princeton University-Rutgers University game in 1869. Other legendary events include a Yale University football game in 1904 and the Green Bay Packers' first season in 1919. No sign of Southern leadership thus far.

Absent any historical connections, we took our question to a handful of die-hard Southern tailgaters, as well as to Tonya Williams Bradford, professor of marketing at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. She's one of only a handful of academics who've actually studied tailgating in America. 

Bradford, whose mother is from Charleston, South Carolina, and father comes from Montgomery, Alabama, clarifies that size also sheds little light. For example, based on sheer numbers, the University of Michigan outranks us all. But the South is unparalleled in its investment.

The MVPs: Oversize Cooking Equipment and Project Managers

"In the North, you might see elaborate meals, but they can be made within an hour or prepped quickly ahead of time," Bradford says. On the other hand, she adds, "They've been frying turkeys at the University of Georgia for decades. A turkey fryer is a huge commitment." 

The Bulldogs aren't alone. The University of Texas at Austin tailgates are dotted with big pit barbecues on trailers. And during game day at Louisiana State University, you'll find no small number of "Cajun microwaves"—if you know what to look for.

"A Cajun microwave is a big insulated box that has a heat source on top, typically a fire or a couple of bags of coals," explains Perry Franklin, who owns a consulting firm in Baton Rouge. He started tailgating with his dad in high school and is still going now that his own kids are out of college. "You don't go through the pains of hauling out your Cajun microwave unless you're cooking very large items, like a whole pig," he explains. "That's going to take 10 to 12 hours and tells you how dedicated these people are."

Depending on game time, those chefs might have to start roasting in the middle of the night. "Our whole life revolves around what time kickoff is," quips Lang, who witnessed the great pimiento cheese caper.

Preferring not to cook during the event itself, Lang buys groceries on Wednesday or Thursday to avoid the deluge of pregame shoppers in Athens and then cooks all day on Friday so she's ready to go first thing Saturday morning. Her family is part of a tailgating collective that goes back 15 years. They approach the menu potluck style and take turns with other duties, such as setting up and breaking down their site. "The real hero is not the chef," she says. "It's the project manager." 

Food personality Elizabeth Heiskell, aka the Debutante Farmer, is in a similar collective with about 20 others in Oxford, Mississippi. In true Ole Miss style, they pull out tablecloths, design printed cards on fancy stock, haul in flower arrangements, and set up chairs and a television. "It's a tremendous amount of work," Heiskell says. "I've never been much of an athlete, but I am incredibly competitive."

Prized Plots and Hangout Spots

Perhaps no aspect of tailgating is more competitive than the site stakeout. While most American campuses open to tailgaters the morning of the game, Southern schools usually let fans in the night before. Stuart Ray, a high school administrator in Austin, Texas, was a cheerleader at the University of Texas for two years and spent the rest of his collegiate football seasons running a large tailgate for a campus club. He and his classmates worked in shifts, taking turns squatting in their chosen spot from the time lots opened at 6 p.m. on Friday until setup the following morning. Heiskell's crowd at Ole Miss has an employee of sorts who camps out in the Grove Friday night before each home game, saving their place until morning. And in the RV lot at LSU, tailgaters arrive Friday evening and stay, sleeping in their campers, through Sunday morning. 

A pennant with the quote: "People need a reason to come together in a public sphere in an intimate way and, most important, to have a little fun."
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

"You're homesteading in the College of Business parking lot," Franklin explains. For seven years, he and his wife, Monique, owned a camper and participated at this level while their children were in middle and high school. "Friday night is round one," he explains. People pregame while cooking and prepping. Those without RVs who show up to drop off equipment or ice chests hang out for a beer or two before heading home. "I don't think some people ever go to sleep," Franklin says. 

Among those who do, many must rise at dawn to keep cooking. And when LSU games start at 7 p.m., RVers don't return to camp until around 10:30 that night, when commuting fans stop by to eat and socialize while they wait for traffic to die down.  As Franklin says, "It's not for the faint of heart."

Deep-Running Duels

Bradford wonders if Southerners' incredible commitment to tailgating springs partly from the historic grudge matches between our schools. "[They] are much longer and more consistent: Alabama and Auburn, Clemson and Georgia, and these age-old rivalries that you don't see replicated in other parts of the country," she says.

At tailgates, rivalries also show up on the menu. Literally. It's common practice to sacrificially cook a representation of your opponent's mascot. "When we played Arkansas, we roasted a hog whole," recalls Ray of his UT days.

Southern College Football Rivalries: Alabama vs Auburn; Oklahoma vs Texas; Southern vs Grambling State; Florida vs Georgia; Tennessee vs Kentucky; Mississippi State vs Ole Miss; Bethune Cookman vs Florida A&M; South Carolina vs Clemson
Credit: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay, Kailey Whitman, and Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Pork barbecue being revered as it is in the South, the Razorbacks' mascot, Tusk, is a favorite target across the SEC. And what about when LSU plays the University of Florida, whose mascot is plentiful in area groceries and swamps? "I guarantee you that one out of every 12 tailgates is doing some kind of gator dish," Franklin says, including whole ones in Cajun microwaves.

From Tacos to Chicken Tenders

Where food is concerned (and in the South, it's always concerned), we're passionate about our regional favorites, which might explain our rabid enthusiasm. It's an expression of local culinary pride. "Food of the South is very closely associated with location," Bradford says, "and that's not the same in other places in the United States or maybe even the world." 

At UT games, "regional favorite" means one thing and it's not pork.  "It's Texas," Ray says, "so we have beef, primarily—lots of sausage and brisket." UT fans will eat chicken too, but typically only if it's barbecued because, Ray says, "We like smoking stuff." If the game is early in the day, fans cook up another Austin staple: breakfast tacos.

Lang and Heiskell report the traditional classics of Southern tailgating fare in Athens and Oxford: what Lang calls "those little Hawaiian roll sandwiches with ham, poppy seeds, and Swiss cheese that have been around since the beginning of time," along with pimiento cheese, egg-and-olive, and chicken salad sandwiches; fried chicken; and deviled eggs, of course.

More than being a kid-friendly crowd-pleaser, chicken tenders have restorative properties. "If your cousin has had too much to drink, you shove a couple into him, and he'll be just fine," Heiskell says.

Heiskell sometimes makes a pot of chili, and Lang reports seeing the occasional Lowcountry boil, but for the most part, their tailgate fare is designed to be held and consumed with only one hand because the other is occupied with a drink.

A pennant with the quote "Football may be king but tailgating is closer to God."
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Franklin says LSU fans also appreciate handheld foods—but merely as appetizers. You read that right: In Baton Rouge, the menus are coursed. "There are some significant entrées involved," he says. "You're not going to get just a hot dog or hamburger." 

South Louisianans might serve their main course with a green salad and French bread. Jambalaya is common, along with all manner of fish dishes. And when the weather turns crisp, big cauldrons bubble with gumbo. "Everything in Louisiana revolves around eating and drinking," Franklin says. "We are very prideful about food. It's part of who we are as people."

Although menus shift from region to region, each stays basically the same from year to year. Lang believes we've come to associate certain foods with the occasion, just as we connect pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving. That's part of the appeal. We want the food always to be the same because game day is a modern, ritualized holiday of sorts.

A Near-Spiritual Tradition

Franklin considers the tailgate "an extension of the Southern hospitality exhibited at our homes."  Bradford agrees and makes a connection between the unscheduled drop-ins at tents and our long-standing regional tradition of generosity: "Somebody knocks on your door, and you serve them tea, whether you're expecting them or not." 

Our hospitable nature might put Southerners at the forefront of what Bradford and her scholarly team call a "correction." Today, we constantly text and FaceTime, which means we rarely show up unannounced. Also, we've replaced front porch conversation with Facebook and sidelined picnics in favor of Uber Eats. The result is a shrinking of the "public commons," spaces where we come together in real time with real people. Tailgating reminds us how to connect the old-fashioned way—by socializing over food. 

Southern College Football Traditions: Virginia Tech's Lunch Pail; Eagle Flying at Auburn; Howard's Rock at Clemson; Georgia's Lone Trumpeter; Cowbells at Mississippi State; Florida's Mr. Two Bits; Yell Leaders at Texas A&M
Credit: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay

We talk about this as merely an extension of our love for the game, but it might be more accurate to say that it pulls the strings here. The American Tailgaters Association reports that 30% of tailgaters never even enter the stadium. Our conclusion? Football might be the catalyst, but if it didn't exist, we'd probably find another reason to gather under tents for food, drink, and fellowship. College football provides that clearly delineated schedule, not unlike a calendar of holidays—and of course, fandom. People need a reason to come together in a public sphere in an intimate way and, most importantly, to have a little fun. We always have and always will. Football may be king, but tailgating is closer to God.