Preparty Hardy

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tailgaters take to the parking lots of America at sporting events—barbecuing, drinking beer, and eating before the game. Only one man does it professionally. That’s the “Commissioner of Tailgating,” Joe Cahn.

Cahn sold his business, the New Orleans School of Cooking, in 1996, and planned to do a television series in which he lived in a motor home for one NFL season and traveled to every stadium. He ultimately gave up on the TV part, declared himself the Commissioner of Tailgating, and now travels in his 40-foot Country Coach to more than 45 football games every year. (He’s branched out to include the occasional NASCAR race, Jimmy Buffett concert, or steeplechase event, too.) He’s even sponsored: Campbell’s soup, Stanley thermoses, KFC, Tyson, and Pepcid AC have all paid Cahn to chat up their products when he’s tailgating.

CHOW spoke to Cahn to learn more about the parties in the parking lots.

Why do you think so many sports fans love to tailgate?

We live in a world now where … we don’t want to know our neighbors; we don’t want them to know our business, so we stay locked in. We don’t talk to people walking down the street; we don’t talk to people in elevators. But in the parking lot, we talk to everybody. The only stranger in the parking lot is that person we haven’t said hello to yet.

What happens when you show up for a tailgate?

I park my RV … I get there when you’re allowed to first be there. For college games that’s usually the Wednesday or Thursday before the Saturday game, and for pros I’m there as early as I can [be] to get a spot and avoid traffic. Then I put a table out with some munchies, maybe some chips and dip and peanuts, then I take my camera and walk around at least once, sometimes twice, seeing friends I’ve made over the years. I walk around and talk to people to see what’s a little bit different from the norm, different from just a grill and some burgers and brats. Maybe it’s … some homemade tamales in San Diego or some barbecue or smoking in Kansas City.

Who’s the most interesting character you’ve come across in your travels?

Probably, as I refer to him, Pinto Ron, who’s up in Buffalo and cooks on the hood of his car. One of the characters of the tailgate scene, he’s been to over 225 straight games, and his party is open to the public.

What’s the best food to have at a tailgate?

The first rule of tailgating is keep it simple. It’s not a competition, although some think it is. I don’t like to have things where you need a plate and need to cut it up; I like more hand food. If you’re going to have meat, do more kebabs than a steak where you have to sit down and cut it.

What are the etiquette rules of tailgating?

Know where you’re parking. If you travel to another city, ask if it’s someone else’s spot, and park accordingly. The vast majority of places have first-come, first-served parking … but it’s … common courtesy to ask. Don’t be obnoxious or an idiot: If you’re listening to music, don’t blast it. A lot of people now bring TVs out so they can watch the pregame or the game before or the game after in the parking lot, but try not to spill out over your area. Although one of the great things about tailgating is that all these different parties become a collective.

What’s the most unusual dish you’ve come across?

Anywhere from bear or even leg of lion that I’ve had when Minnesota was playing the Detroit Lions. Of course, it wasn’t a hunted lion (which would be illegal), it was an old lion that had died on a wildlife preserve. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. You run across basically everything, whether it’s different types of soups or different baked goods, or whole pigs or Cuban pigs down in Miami. I’ve seen fresh, whole king salmon on the grill in Seattle. In Miami I ran into an Orthodox rabbi who does kosher tailgating.

What’s the one dish you’ve been most wary of trying?

Probably scrapple. If you’re not familiar with scrapple, it’s basically pig parts with cornmeal, baked in a loaf pan, sliced into thin pieces, and then pan-fried for breakfast. I tried it in Pennsylvania. Scrapple with chocolate really made me hesitate. It was disgusting. But it’s always fun to try new things. Very few things will kill you or make you ill.

What’s the most important piece of advice for a successful tailgate?

Come out and walk around. Find friends you didn’t know you had or haven’t seen in a while, but get some ideas [for taking your tailgating up a level]. The most important thing is just to have a good time, just be in the spirit. Know that you’re a participant rather than just walking into the football game at the last minute and going home right after. Tailgaters want to win the game, but if we don’t we [still] know we had a good time.

Check out the Commissioner’s website for tailgating recipes.