There is a right way and a wrong way to tailgate.
The southern way is the right way.
Forget what you’ve heard, or the tailgates you’ve gone to in the past. If you’ve never been to an old-fashioned southern one, then you’re missing out an essential adult milestone. That’s because tailgating in the South means a lot more than just drinking and eating food in some nondescript parking lot before a big game—it’s about cultivating a community.
Anyone who’s ever tailgated at a big southern university knows this all too well. For many college football fans, the tailgate is equally as important—ok, maybe a little less so—than the game itself. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without training, you shouldn’t just walk into a packed football stadium with 71,000 screaming fans (think the Georgia Dome) without first mentally and spiritually preparing for what’s to come. So whether you’re a regular college football fan or an Ole Miss or TCU alum who’s traveling to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, you should think of the tailgate as a kind of warm-up—both for your brain and for your stomach.
Because not everyone has been blessed with the experience of attending a genuine southern tailgate, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide of how to tailgate like the men and women lucky enough to have grown up in the South.
In many parts of the country, most people don’t give much thought to their appearance before leaving for a college football tailgate. Yet that couldn’t be further from the truth in the South. Whether you’re in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Athens, Georgia, you’re going to see a lot of smartly dressed football fans. Guys wear khakis, a button-down shirt with a tie—oftentimes a bow tie—and a sport coat; for their part, women dress up in nice sundresses and either heels or cowboy boots.
Things can get even more formal at certain schools: As any Ole Miss fan will tell you, it’s not uncommon to see men in seersucker suits and women in pearls making their way to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
If you’re accustomed to the kind of tailgate where you hang out with some old buddies before heading to your seats, then know this: South of the Mason-Dixon line, a college football tailgate is a family affair. It doesn’t matter if you’re tailgating at a fraternity or at the Grove at Ole Miss, you’re going to be surrounded by three and sometimes even four generations of family members who are there to enjoy the game.
Because southern tailgates are family-oriented and community-focused, you’ll likely get a number of invitations to come eat and drink with people who five minutes ago were complete strangers. Contrary to what you may think, fans of the opposing team are given the same kind of courtesy, so it’s a safe bet that you’ll be fraternizing with supporters of your team’s rival before—and probably after—kickoff.
While you’ll find hotdogs and hamburgers at any southern tailgate, they won’t be the stars of the culinary show. Any true Southerner knows very well that it’s not an authentic tailgate unless there’s barbecue. (For the record, bringing a bottle of store-bought sauce to a tailgate doesn’t qualify as having a barbecue.)
When we say southern barbecue, we’re talking staples like ribs, pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked sausage, potato salad, corn bread, and macaroni & cheese. There are, however, subtle differences in the kind of barbecue you’re going to find in different parts of the South. For instance, Georgians and Alabamians douse their barbecue in wet sauces; on the other hand, in North Carolina and certain parts of Texas, dry rubs are the name of the game. Still, regardless of which type of barbecue you’re served, you’ll follow it up with the same refreshments at any southern tailgate: sweet tea and lemonade.
How you’ll eat your barbecue depends on where you are. Though the majority of tailgaters use paper plates and napkins in most southern cities and towns, Ole Miss fans are known to be a little more formal. If you happen to be in Oxford, don’t be surprised if you come across catered tailgates featuring white tablecloths, glass dinner plates, and silver cutlery. In fact, some Ole Miss alumni take tailgating so seriously that it’s not uncommon to see crystal chandeliers hanging from the maze of tents at the Grove—and no, we’re not kidding.
Since southern tailgaters will range from little kids all the way to nonagenarians, it’s important that you’re on your best behavior at all times. Even though Southerners are a polite bunch, we’re not afraid to call out someone who’s ruining the fun for everybody else. At the end of the day, this rule is pretty straightforward: Be courteous, mind your manners, and act like you would if your grandmother were watching. If you’re at a southern tailgate in the first place, there’s a pretty good chance that she will be anyway.
Feeling inspired? Here are links to three different barbecue recipes to get you started:
Texas-style Barbecued Brisket:
Barbecue Chicken with Alabama White Barbecue Sauce (a recipe by Kevin Gillespie, whose restaurant, Gunshow, we featured in our Atlanta traveler’s guide article):
Classic Pulled Pork Sandwiches: