Throughout the country at this time of year diehard tailgaters are gearing up for a competitive sport in itself – tailgate parties! We’ve heard rumors of legendary and epic spreads being prepared. We’ve heard of barbequed whole hogs, deep fried turkeys and slow-smoked prime rib roasts with tailgaters trucking in heavy- duty equipment, including generators, to rival any outdoor commercial caterer! Arriving before the crack of dawn these die-hards secure the choicest spots in the car park, then begin preparing their menu for the day. This necessitates organizing a smorgasbord of breakfast items, lunches, appetizers, dinners, and desserts. And of course it is all washed down with a bevy of thirst quenchers.

Know the Lay of the Land

In the world of tailgating there are serious cooks. On the Internet we came across one by the name of BIG SAL. Also known as The Tailgating Czar, Big Sal arrives before six in the morning with a cooking and eating strategy that’s destined to continue well into overtime, and often beyond. The theme of his menu depends on what team is playing. For instance, when the Miami Dolphins were playing he started with an omelet station served with seafood hash and lox and bagels. At 10 am the omelet station wound down followed by the next course of hot and cold appetizers of mussels, a raw bar consisting of clams and shrimp and a grill station with scallop kebabs. At 11:30 am he began to get really serious with his main course. This was a monumental offering consisting of blackened Ahi tuna steaks, lemon-peppered swordfish, steamed lobster and corn on the cob. To finish off this “before the game” feast he held a Venetian hour of Italian and French pastries. We won’t go into the after game feast, because that was another epic presentation!

All this fine cooking took a stash of equipment, including six grills, a couple of two burner stoves and two burner stock-pots. And that’s not to mention the other creature comforts including two outdoor propane turbo heaters, eight tables, 30 chairs and a couch. There was of course the necessary 27” TV with a satellite dish. Oh, and let’s not forget two generators to keep the whole kit and caboodle going.

Rules is Rules at Rentschler Field

We’re not sure of Big Sal’s next performance, but we know it’s not going to occur at Rancher Field in East Hartford. At Rancher the earliest you can set up is 4 hours before the game. There is no tailgating once the game starts. Regulations also do not permit charcoal or open fires, or very large gas grills. Formally an airfield runway, the parking lot has a strip of grass running through the center that is a potential fire hazard.

So before trying to re-create Big Sal’s cooking marathon, it’s best to take a look at what’s allowed at your favorite sports arena. The cooking apparatus, and consequently the menu may be limited by the rules. But that’s not to say its impossible to create an assembly of lip smacking eats in a 3-4 hour time period with a minimal amount of equipment.

Portable Cooking Equipment

So what’s left to create a culinary tailgating masterpiece at Rancher Field besides carting in a generator to plug in a microwave? Actually, generators are allowed at Rancher Field but the best choice for grilling is a portable gas grill, and for soups, stews and sautés, a portable butane burner.

There are many small propane grills available on the market with prices ranging from under $30, to well over $400. The more expensive grills are made of durable sleek stainless steel and claim to have a BTU rating that will rival any commercial restaurant stove. Most weight under 20 pounds and will snuggly fit in an over the shoulder bag. If a hearty chili, a crawfish boil or a warming soup is more your tailgate cooking style look for a portable butane burner. They’re lightweight, compact, safe and inexpensive.

(Sidebar) Buying Equipment

Portable Gas Grills

Inexpensive tabletop Propane Grills, some as low as $30, can be found at most home stores and can be ordered over the Internet. One good Internet site is Don’t expect these inexpensive models to punch out much power or look like a space age grill. Expect the brightly colored paint to start peeling off after use,

If you demand mega-power and good looks expect to pay big bucks.  The Parker Grill puts out a massive 20,000 BTU. Most home cook-tops are between 8,000 – 12,000 BTU’s. It has 173 square inches of grilling space and weights in at only 20 pounds. It costs a whopping $425!

Solaire Anywhere Portable Infrared Grill costs $320. The marine version costs $400. Still powerful at 14,000 BTUs it has 155 square inches of cooking space and weights 20 lbs. It also comes with extendable legs.

A less expensive top-of-the-line portable grill is the Weber Q 220 Portable Grill. It costs $200 and has 280 square inches of cooking surface. It boasts 12,000 BTU’s but its twice as heavy at 42 lbs.

If weight is a priority the Grill-4-All Portable Grill weights only 15 lbs, has 190 square inches of cooking surface, but has fairly low 8,500 BTUs. It also comes with extendable legs and can be converted to charcoal or electric. The price tag is around $160.

If you’re looking for a moveable kitchen take a look at the Fire and Ice Thermos Grill by Char-Broil. It is a 10 gallon cooler, grill and griddle. It has the largest cooking surface at 312 square inches. At 66 lbs it comes equipped with transport wheels.

Portable Butane Burners are simple cooking devises. Costing between $25 to $50 they are small, very compact, safe and inexpensive. Most have a carrying case. They can be found at camping stores and restaurant supply stores. Find less expensive burners at Chinese grocery stores. These burners are just like cooking on a home burner. Compact and lightweight they will heat soups, stews, cook stir-fry and just about anything a home burner can do. You have probably seen them used at hotel omelet stations and by chefs at portable cooking stations.

Easy Does It

Just because you are eating out of the back of a car in a parking lot doesn’t mean your tailgate fare has to be predictable and boring. And just because our kitchen is out of the trunk doesn’t mean we can’t up the anti and move away from the regular fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, chips dips and beer. Balancing fork and knife with plate and beer mug just doesn’t cut it at tailgate parties, unless you plan to bring along a foldable dining room table and real tableware. Keep in mind that the more you bring, the more dirty dishes you have to cart back and deal with at home. It’s why we opt for finger style food and disposable tableware. Finger food doesn’t have to be fancy delicate canapés or the traditional fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, chips dips and beer.

What to Cook

For a crowd we think sausages are the answer. But not just any sausage. Take a look at the variety of sausage offerings from upscale supermarkets such as Wild Oats Marketplace and Whole Foods in West Hartford. They have many kinds of sausages including lamb, spicy chipotle, andouille, spinach and chicken, and even delicate seafood sausages. Instead of hot dog buns think about using wraps. Wraps can house more than just condiments including healthy and flavorful salad mixes. Look at the “make your own” salad station at supermarkets to get inspiration. To create a help-yourself condiment and topping/salad station, put the offerings into disposable yogurt cups displayed in a shallow wicker basket. We suggest items like shredded carrots, raisins, cole slaw, diced cucumbers, baby spinach, shredded cheese, sliced avocado, crumbled bacon, fresh herbs and toasted almonds. Don’t use watery salad items such as cut tomatoes as they are more trouble than they’re worth. Then just let the guests help themselves.

Supply a couple of zesty sauces and dressings to drizzle on top. One suggestion has a middle-eastern take using a mint and yogurt sauce on lamb sausages with sliced red peppers. Or perhaps go Italian and sprinkle a thick reduced balsamic vinegar on a spinach and chicken sausage with baby spinach leaves, walnuts and blue cheese.

If one-upping the Jones’s in the next car over is your idea of a competitive sport, a kebab of surf and turf will put you in the running. Thread fat cubes of filet mignon on kebab skewers.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked pepper. For the surf, lobster tail either in the shell or out of the shell, skewered on a stick will do the trick.

For an easy appetizer that’s quick to prepare and cook, thread pre-cooked shrimp or scallops separated by pesto soaked bread cubes and grape tomatoes onto kebab skewers. A quick flash on the grill is all it takes to create this lip-smacking treat.

Sandwiches do not always mean PBJ’s or ham and cheese. Toasted sandwiches made with focaccio stuffed with smoked meats, grilled vegetables and luscious cheeses turns the mundane sandwich into a gourmet panini. All that’s needed is a frying pan or griddle placed on your gas grill or butane burner and an extra weight, such as a brick wrapped in aluminum foil, placed on top to press the sandwich down.

For the hardened carnivore there’s nothing like a grilled steak sandwich topped with steak sauce and blue cheese, or for the fish lover, a sandwich of grilled salmon with a savory topping such as a sweet and spicy mango chutney. We would serve both these delectable gourmet treats on toasty buttery garlic bread.

Make It Easy On Yourself - Go Disposable…

Instead of Tupperware containers for transporting food items use disposable zip lock bags, and yogurt or tub butter containers that can be thrown away. Pack paper plates, napkins and a roll of paper towels. Use plastic utensils for serving and wooden skewers for kebabs. For easy clean up supply moist towelettes, or baby wipes. Just in case, we always bring a few heavy-duty garbage bags.

Not every cooking or serving utensil can be the disposable kind. For us they include stainless steel or plastic wine glasses, beer steins or margarita glasses, cooking tongs and a spatula. Use large zip lock bags for leftovers and to seal dirty reusable cooking utensils to take home to clean. To make sure you’ve got all the supplies you need to easily create your culinary masterpiece walk through the cooking and serving process in your mind just to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

… And Pre-prep

Every professional caterer will tell you that the more prep you do before the event the smoother everything will go during the event. So prepare as much as you can before you travel. Pre thread kebabs and trim steak and salmon into serving sizes. Chop vegetables and salad offerings so they are ready to assemble. Slice and butter garlic bread for sandwiches and make and bottle sauces in serving containers beforehand. Even the sausages can be pre-cooked by simmering for 10 minutes.

Tailgate Libations

Beer is of course the traditional libation for tailgating. But we still prefer to quaff wine. But there’s a minor problem - glass containers are not allowed. Fortunately space age technology has come to the rescue, and the contemporary wine box is the way to go. Wine box technology, and the quality of the wines encased in them, has improved in leaps and bounds with many Australians using them at their ‘barbies.’

The new technology prevents the bane of wine spoilage, oxygen, from entering the container. And if there’s any wine left there’s a good possibility it’ll be fresh enough for the next parking lot event. We’ve opened Merlot and Chardonnay wine boxes periodically tasting them with a sip here and a sip there and the general consensus is that the container keeps the wine fresh for up to six weeks. Alas, there hasn’t been a good alternative to glass invented yet, so small plastic tumblers, or stainless steel mugs will just have to suffice.

More producers are boxing wine. The largest selling bag-in-a- box producer in America is Franzia with a slew of varietals between $12 to $17 for 3 liters - that’s the equivalent to 4 regular size bottles of wine. Corbett Canyon Premium Cask, produces a Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Shiraz and a Merlot, for $16.50 for 3.0 liters. Their Pinot Grigio is their most popular, and really is a great deal.

If you think only cheap wine is put into boxes look at Stonehaven Chardonnay, Merlot and Shiraz from Australia. It’s $25.50 a 3 liter cask. And Fish Eye Pinot Grigio and Shiraz at $20. For an even higher quality boxed wine for those special tailgating occasions look at the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from California’s Killer Juice. You’ll pay $15 for a regular bottle of these varietals, but a 4 bottle equivalent will only cost $28. It’s not bad stuff either!

Word Count - 2191

For further information on tailgating at Rentschler Field

Tailgating USA

Decades Magazine - Fall 2006