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Football's Fan Fare

As long as there are big games, there will be people who come early and eat in the parking lot

PLEASE pass the cheese and crackers, lasagne, Chicken Divan and rice, French bread, vegetable dip, and cake. And when you're done, pass the football. Pre-game picnicking, or ``tailgating,'' has been a tradition for at least as long as there have been big games that fans have had to get to early.

Like many stadiums around the country, Giants Stadium here is a magnet for cars, trucks, and campers hours before home games. ``Some are here at 9:30 in the morning for a 4:30 game,'' says Chris Ianneillo, Giants' stadium parking attendant. ``It's the same people in the same lots.''

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Below a circling Sea World blimp on a recent Sunday, thousands of pro football fans consumed food ranging from 10-foot-long submarine sandwiches to smoked turkey and caviar. (Vehicles with tailgates that fold down are as rare as New York Giants tickets: The modern-day tailgate is more likely a table.)

How did this American pastime get started?

``Somebody got hungry,'' offers Mario Laudano, who's with friends outside a large camper trailer. ``It started with early games. [You've] got to get here before lunch, so you eat in the parking lot,'' he says. Grilling chicken nearby is Ray Quagliani, who, in professional life, is a chef at a seafood restaurant in West Haven, Conn. ``We forgot the white tablecloth and candelabra,'' he jokes. The RV was keeping macaroni and rigatoni warm. After the game, they planned to grill steaks.

Tailgates started because of traffic, says Gene O'Leary from Edison, N.J., who's here with his wife, Carol, and their son Bill. ``When you get there early, you don't have the rush of the traffic; you can sit and relax,'' he explains while tending his shish kebab. Plus, stadium food is ``awful.'' The O'Learys also tailgate after games, again to the tune of good food, less traffic.

Tailgates can be small or large; as simple as a picnic before a pro game, or as elaborate as a gala dinner before a college homecoming game.

``In the Midwest, it is unbelievable how big [tailgating] is,'' says Susan Wyler, author of ``Tailgate Parties'' (New York: Harmony Books, $6.95). Ohio State alumnus Roger Backstrom, along with several of his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers, arrive at home games before 6 a.m. - regardless of game time. ``We set up our table, play a little Nerf football or cards, and visit people,'' he says by phone.

``It's a real social activity,'' says longtime tailgater and Giants fan Linda Lowensten. At every home Giants game, she and her husband, Bob, set up their table of goodies in section 4K. Today, they share a menu of chicken legs, shrimp, raw vegetables, French bread, savon mousse, chili con queso with nacho chips, and Georgia pecans.

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Ms. Lowensten recalls some highfalutin tailgating at West Point, where people set up rugs, chandeliers, and pianos outside. It was ``kind of one-upsmanship. It's not quite as elegant here.''

Through the years, tailgating has gotten ``much more gourmet,'' says Alan Kenney, director of Yale University Dining Halls and a longtime tailgater. He throws a tailgate party for 200 people every year at Yale's last home game. ``I have a spot in the main lot which you can't get unless someone dies,'' he says. ``There's a long waiting list.'' Today, Kenney and his wife, Honey, are with fellow Giants fans.

``The team dentist used to tailgate with us,'' says John Henry, who is slicing smoked turkey. ``Chef'' Henry owns the Bull's Head Inn in Campbell, N.Y., and, like Kenney, has been part of this large tailgating clan since the stadium opened in 1976. ``These people I see at eight [home] games - it's something to look forward to,'' he says.

The Harvard-Yale game, held this year in Cambridge, Mass., has long attracted tailgaters, many of whom delight in lavish entertaining complete with real silver and candles. ``The football isn't so great, but the atmosphere is terrific,'' says Jill Fiering (Harvard '55), who has tailgated at every Harvard-Yale game since 1957.

What makes a good tailgate? ``The people,'' says Leslie McCafferty, adding ``The food is secondary.'' Ms. McCafferty (Harvard '76) tailgates every home Harvard-Yale game with her husband and several other couples (all the husbands played football for Harvard).

For some, the game ranks even behind people and food: One group of tailgaters at the Harvard-Yale game admitted that they didn't even have tickets - they were just here to see friends and to feast.

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