Tailgating TalesNov 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
“Crab stuffed mushrooms. Want some?”
I had never laid eyes on the woman who stood before me, plastic tray of mushrooms at the ready, and I probably would never see her again. The logical response is, “Away from me you possibly homicidal maniac! Why would I take food from a stranger?”
But I said, “Delighted, thank you! Would you like a mimosa?”
There is only one setting in which such a conversation is not only possible, but proper and expected. Welcome to NFL tailgating. On several Sundays and the occasional Monday and Thursday, in Orchard Park, the Buffalo Bills faithful gather by the thousands. They come from places near and far, lining up hours before kickoff to claim a parking spot they will subsequently customize. Pop-up tents, camp chairs, and folding tables are the basics. Add coolers and some sort of instrument for cooking. Come winter, the ritual remains intact, but now there are sides to the tents and portable heaters beneath. Flags are useful as locators, since telling your compatriots “We’ve got a blue tent and a card table, come find us” is akin to a real-life game of “Where’s Waldo?”
As new season ticket holders, we weren’t sure how it all worked. We left our Waverly home at the unholy hour of 4 a.m. and by 7:30 were coming up on Highmark Stadium with no clue where to go. One block back, a group of true believers were lined up on a side street, complete with a truck wrapped in the Bills logo from grill to tailgate. Bob rolled down the window and said to the folks standing on the street, “Hi. We’re new to this and we’re not sure where to…” The young man waved off the rest of the statement and pointed his thumb to the end of the line of cars. “Get in line. We’ve got you.”
This total acceptance by complete strangers is a fundamental principle of tailgating. You’re a Bills fan? You’re family. We understand you. Those young people closed around us like a tribe, answering our questions and offering their knowledge. (Even if they did tag us as “the old couple in the blue truck.” The brats.)
The set-ups for tailgating can be quite elaborate, including high-powered music systems, robot-like heating gizmos, coolers you could stuff a body in, and fancy grills. At our first game, we unloaded our gear and Bob looked around. “Holy cow, look at that prep table. That’s cool. Their grill is huge! You could make thirty burgers on that thing. There’s lighting under their tent—we should have that. I’m going to have to go shopping.” He wandered the lot, asking questions and admiring ingenious set-ups.
If you think the tailgating food hasn’t progressed beyond hot dogs and hamburgers, oh, are your tastebuds in for an awakening. Stuffed jalapeños, chili, ham and cheese sliders, bacon wrapped venison, mac and cheese, meatballs, sausage and peppers, cheesesteak, breakfast sandwiches, and shish kabobs are standard offerings. There’s always soda and water, but the crowd flocks to pitchers of Bloody Marys and mimosas on those winter Sundays. (Okay, any Sunday). One of the joys of tailgating is whatever you drank in the parking lot evaporates during three and half hours of screaming yourself hoarse in twenty-four-degree weather during the game.While tailgating happens across the thirty-two-team span of the NFL, I’ve been told that Bills fans are unusually gracious to the visiting opponent’s followers. I’ve seen it countless times. As the cornhole bags whiz by and the smell of food hangs in the air like a county fair, folks in the other jersey wander between the rows of vehicles. Sometimes they are carrying a token refreshment, but often they are empty-handed. Without fail, someone will call out to them, “You hungry?” Within minutes, they are under a tent, plate in hand, and being soundly teased for their affiliation.
It’s all in good fun. We are bonded by our love of the game and loyalty to our teams. I have come to adore the cheerful gang we have formed at the games. I know little about them outside of football, but I know we probably wouldn’t come across them in any other part of our lives. We’ve got every character you can imagine—the sports wizard who can quote every stat on every player, the traditionalist who got his seat via familial bequeathment and who will always attend regardless of team performance, the overachiever whose tent is perfectly positioned and whose food is more like an upscale garden wedding, e.g. “Watercress with homemade hummus and organic cherry tomatoes?” On the other end of the social spectrum, the language can be a bit…salty. There hasn’t been such lively lingo since George Patton stubbed his toe on his way into Belgium. We just roll with it.
Bob (pictured towards the beginning of this story), a retired fire chief, rigged up a contraption in the truck that organizes our tailgate supplies to facilitate unloading and packing up. As a bonus, if the stadium catches on fire, he can run fireground command from the back of our Tundra. The winter games are a challenge, as the wind roars across the lot at Mach 4 and unsecured tents threaten flight. But there is no discernable drop in attendance. In fact, Bills backers take it as a sign of true loyalty that you stayed in the stands long after your feet were just a memory and your nostrils were cemented together. It took us all season to work out our wardrobes (you can see me stylin’ above). Now I know to put the pocket warmers between the two pairs of socks just before we head for the gate. The cold-weather leggings are essential, even though I look like an overstuffed sausage. The snow pants hide a multitude of sins. Fashion loses out to function every time.
As a Buffalo native, the team has broken my heart for decades. But we wade into each season with hope anew, sure that “things will be different this year.” Take my word for it, if Buffalo ever wins it all, they will have to shut down Western New York for a week—four days for the party and three for the hangover. Canada will have to talk in soft voices. Because, you know, this could be the year.