Fall is here. Despite burgundy leaves and nippy air across the Northeast, it’s too soon to bring every meal inside. Outdoor picnics, barbecues, cocktail hours get wrapped up into one uniquely American tradition: the Tailgate.
With each new autumnal season comes a new season of college sports, where spectating is practically a sport itself. Cars, tents, grills, coolers, and you-name-it fill parking lots, teaming with fans.
But this pre-game feasting and drinking has a longer, wider-spread history than one might expect. In essence, a tailgate boils down to the celebration of competition with a heck of an outdoor banquet. And picnicking spectators have been around for a while.
Among various periods in history where we find nods to the concept of tailgating is the Roman era, although one wouldn’t find today’s Italians out behind the AC Milano stadium pre-match. In more recent centuries, we do turn back to the United States, before we were truly united. Onlookers were said to tuck into sumptuous spreads while observing the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War.
The underpinnings of the tradition aside, we can look with certainty to the year 1869. Rutgers played my alma mater, Princeton, in the first college football game. Spectators socialized during the game, inevitably over a meal. Tailgating, at a conceptual level, arrived just as its mainstay sport entered the bodies and minds of Americans.
Decades later, the tailgate is more than a picnic. With grills, coolers, and other modern-day equipment, one can feast pretty well outside. Regional specialties from Cajun-spiced chili to kielbasa and sauerkraut to grass fed-beef burgers may turn up alongside kegs and cans. As gourmet food inches into the scene, you may even bring wine and a cheese plate.
Who knows, maybe the Romans did, too.