Tailgating is so firmly associated with family togetherness that when food photographer and football fan Taylor Mathis landed a contract to write about Southern tailgating traditions, he immediately recruited his mother to serve as a recipe tester.
“Just having her input was one of those experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything,” said Mathis, whose lushly illustrated “The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South” was published this summer.
So it’s hardly surprising that the most important date on the tailgater’s calendar is the Saturday following Thanksgiving, which is as anticipated as much for its feasting potential as its rivalry games.
Mathis said most tailgaters spend the season planning an on-site holiday blowout, complete with deep-fried turkey and endless pies.
“It’s a last send-off,” he said.
And while Mathis’ travels focused on the South, they weren’t restricted there, or to colleges. Tailgaters like David Griffith, who heads up Detroit’s Suh Crew, named in honor of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, do their best to replicate the festive meals they recall from childhood.
“We get down there about 6 a.m.,” said Griffith, a truck driver now in his fourth year of Thanksgiving tailgating. “We call it Thanks-gating. I usually cook about four turkeys. It’s basically the whole Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody leaves full.”
In addition to turkey, the 60-member Suh Crew breakfasts on cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy before the Lions’ annual 12:30 p.m. kick-off.
When the game ends (and the fullness has faded), Griffith heads to his grandmother’s house for an indoor Thanksgiving dinner. The tailgate, though, is the day’s main event.
“I would never settle for regular Thanksgiving,” Griffith said.
Mathis pointed out that the difficulties posed by tailgating are accentuated on Thanksgiving, when the menu challenges the limited equipment and the weather sometimes doesn’t cooperate.
“With tailgating, a successful dish is something you can cook on site and eat standing up,” Mathis said.
Keeping those guidelines in mind, he suggests forgoing the traditional pecan-topped sweet potatoes for grill-spiced pecans. Because even if your team is out of bowl contention by November, you can still eat well.
Makes about 3 cups
3 cups pecan halves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon black pepper
At home, measure out the pecans and store in a sealable container.
Pack the butter in a small sealable container and refrigerate overnight. Add the rest of the ingredients to a small sealable container and mix together.
At your tailgate, place a 9x13 baking pan over a medium-high grill. Add the butter and let it melt. Once the butter is melted, add the pecans and stir, making sure all the nuts are covered in melted butter.
Add about half of the spice mix to the pan and stir. Cook the pecans over a medium-high grill, stirring frequently for about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and add the remaining spice mix. Stir to evenly coat. Transfer to a serving bowl or place the pan on a trivet and serve.
From “The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South” (UNC Press, 2013)