Nail the Tailgate Party

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Football season’s best action isn’t on the field -- it’s in the stadium parking lot. Here’s how to throw a bash that’ll make people forget about the game.

Sure, the real celebrities are inside the stadium getting ready for kickoff. But the parking lot is your place to shine -- as the Peyton Manning or Tom Brady of tailgating parties.

Reaching elite level isn’t easy, though. It takes discipline, practice, the proper equipment and the right coaching -- which is provided here by two of the world’s top minds in this ever-competitive field. Follow their game plan, and you may never even bother making your way to your seats inside for the main event.

Know the Ground Rules
Stadiums set up strict rules for tailgating -- and their security crews enforce them aggressively. Are bottles legal? Can you use only charcoal grills, or does it have to be gas? “What’s most confusing is that the rules can change from year to year. So even if you’ve been to the stadium before, check on its Web site beforehand to know what you can and can’t do,” says Joe Kahn, who runs the Tailgating Web site and has cooked out at 31 NFL stadiums, 123 college stadiums and nine NASCAR venues.

Create a Checklist
“The biggest mistake people make for the tailgate barbecue is actually forgetting to bring the grill or the food,” says Deidra Darsa of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. (She should know. Her organization actually took a poll on the topic.) Trying to come up with a new game plan from the parking lot is always a disaster. So before you go, write a list of everything you need to bring -- the food, fuel, grill, condiments, ice, utensils, napkins, chairs, cheese-heads and whatever else. Then, as you’re loading the vehicle, double-check that all’s accounted for.

Get There as Soon as the Parking Gates Open
The time varies, usually between three and four hours before the event -- though in some places, like Penn State, visitors can arrive up to two days beforehand. Arriving at the parking area early “will allow you to get the grill going so you can enjoy the food and socialize,” says Darsa. Adds Kahn: “A tailgate is like a community social. You want to enjoy yourself and not feel rushed.”

Keep It Simple 
Overlook this rule at your peril. Serving up prime rib and chicken cordon bleu sounds great, but in practice can be a pain to prepare, and more important, hard for partygoers to eat. “This isn’t a cooking contest. Emeril isn’t going to show up,” says Kahn. His advice: Prepare the food beforehand as much as you can so it’s easy to cook at the tailgate, and make everything bite-size so your guests can eat with one hand. Instead of steaks, do kebabs. Instead of super-size burgers, make sliders. And leave the deep fat fryer at home. Not only is cooking with it a hassle, but it’s a safety hazard in confined areas like parking lots.

Spy on the Opposition and Steal Their Plays
“Walk around while you’re there, look at what other people are doing,” says Kahn. “You’ll get a lot of great ideas for future tailgates.” The more you learn from the success of others, the greater your chances of becoming a prime-time player -- in the parking lot.

by Greg Melville