From Public Executions to Game-Day Chili: Retracing the History of Tailgating

George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images / George Rose/Getty Images

On Sunday, September 19, 2021, the NFL's Cleveland Browns played their home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium against the Houston Texans.

The night before, a line of buses, trucks, cars, and RVs stretching two and a half miles long waited to gain admission into one of the stadium's lots—the famed “Muni Lot”—on South Marginal Road, which wouldn't even be open until 7 a.m. Once the vehicles were allowed in, a sea of die-hard fans poured out into the parking lot to party in the hours before game time, feasting on barbecue, burgers, and hot dogs until they were let inside the stadium for kickoff. For many, this early-morning revelry would last longer than the game itself; Browns coach Kevin Stefanski even warned fans not to party too hard and risk missing the opening drive.

These raucous pregame parties played out across every active NFL stadium that day, and whether the fans knew about the history or not, they were all taking part in a ritual that may be even older than the game of football itself: Tailgating.

The Origins of Tailgating

Nothing works up an appetite quite like watching a war.
Nothing works up an appetite quite like watching a war. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While there doesn’t appear to be any conclusive proof, legend has it that the first college football game—played in 1869, between Princeton University and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey—was also home to the first football tailgate. But there were no coolers, kegs, or deep fryers in sight; instead, sausages were simply grilled at the tail end of a horse, hence the term tailgating.

The art of this gastronomic tradition—and if you’ve walked around a tailgate lot on a Saturday or Sunday during football season, you know it is an art—goes back even further than that, touching on the primal urge for food and fellowship.

“It’s something in our humanity,” Tonya Bradford, an associate professor of marketing at the University of California-Irvine, who’s researched the history of tailgating, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a ritual. It’s about identity.”

Eight years before Rutgers and Princeton faced off, a precursor to tailgating took place during a bloodsport of another kind. In 1861, families and a few members of Congress packed picnic lunches and some booze and journeyed from Washington, D.C. to a spot near Manassas, Virginia, by a stream called Bull Run. It was the early stages of the Southern rebellion, which many people said would last six months, tops. From adjoining hillsides, they watched and ate as an outnumbered Confederate force broke the Union soldiers’ battle line, sending troops and spectators off to a hasty and disorganized retreat and showing that the Civil War would not end as quickly as originally thought. As American Heritage magazine put it, this version of tailgating was “the right idea at the wrong time.”

Even further before that, public executions in 16th- and 17th-century England would have a tailgate atmosphere. Throngs of people would show up the night before a hanging for an evening of drinking and dancing; then, on the day of the execution, the upper-class paid an extra fee for prime seats at the gallows, accompanied by plenty of food and liquor. Similarly, during the French Revolution, spectators arrived early to public executions to enjoy a carnival-like climate, complete with dinner and face-painting near the guillotine site, according to author Stanley Karnow.

A Match Made in Pigskin Heaven

Just a small sample of the tailgating that goes on before a Florida-Georgia college football game.
Just a small sample of the tailgating that goes on before a Florida-Georgia college football game. / Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Because football games are typically played just once a week on weekends, it's become the ideal sport for tailgating. “You have time to recover,” Bradford says. “You have time to clean up.” And college football seems particularly appropriate for it, with participants feeding off warm feelings of nostalgia associated with their alma mater. As Bradford explains, many people have a strong affinity for the institution that ushered them into adulthood and use tailgating as an opportunity to reconnect with old friends.

One of college football's most famous games is the annual Florida-Georgia contest, which has been held at a neutral site in Jacksonville pretty much every year since 1933. (The Florida Gators' home site is actually in Gainesville.) In 1958, the Gators beat the Bulldogs 7-6 in a game that was so boring, Bill Kastelz of the Florida Times-Union was struck with a moment of writer’s block. Fumbling for a phrase to fill out his story, Kastelz saw the social event that surrounded the game and referred to it as “the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party.”

The nickname stuck, and even today, the party that goes on before the game grabs as many, if not more, national headlines than the gridiron contest itself. It's since become the model for tailgating extravagance, with some estimates putting the total number of participants at 150,000 each year.

The Modern Tailgating Phenomenon, Or: The Origins of Engine-Block Salmon

Hundreds of Chiefs fans tailgate outside Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Hundreds of Chiefs fans tailgate outside Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. / Peter Aiken/Getty Images

By the second half of the 20th century, as pro football was becoming an American obsession, massive multi-purpose stadiums were being built to accommodate both MLB and NFL teams. Those stadiums were also constructed to accommodate something else: Commuters. Many stadiums built in the early 1900s were near trolley lines and had little space for parking (it's one of the reasons the Dodgers started looking for a new stadium in the 1950s, and ultimately left Brooklyn). These new multipurpose stadiums were instead surrounded by acres of parking lots. This made it easier to pack the car with friends and family and head to the games every week—and the extra space in the lots also made it easier to bring along the grill and a few six-packs in a cooler.

Tailgating really exploded in the past 20 or 30 years, Bradford says, and it’s estimated that 18 percent of fans take part in the ritual before a game. Perhaps not coincidentally, that time period has also seen the rise of ESPN’s ratings juggernaut, College GameDay, a football pregame show that travels to a different college campus every week and presents football analysis and predictions amidst a tailgate atmosphere. As tailgating has become inexorably linked to the sport itself, colleges and teams have realized they can monetize the experience by selling special tailgate merchandise and parking passes for specific lots that allow RVs and other larger vehicles (usually at a higher price point) to set up shop hours before the game.

But that’s led to an arms race as well.

“Has it gotten easier to tailgate? Yes and no,” Bradford says. “More tools are available to do it, but that leads to more complex things.”

People will come to tailgates now with recreational vehicles, sometimes with fully-appointed kitchens. Instead of burgers and hot dogs, people might deep-fry a turkey, make a shrimp or lobster boil, or even cook a standing rib roast. (Bradford knows of at least one person who wrapped salmon in aluminum foil and cooked it on the engine block of their SUV on the drive to the game.)

That's not to say you need to smoke a brisket or make the best chili in the parking lot to enjoy a tailgate—just a passion for a team and an urge to connect to your fellow fanatics. “There are some things that have staying power, and tailgating is one of them,” Bradford says. “Even stadiums that don’t allow for tailgating, there are fans that find a way. It’s like a mini homecoming.”