The complete tailgating experience

Tailgating isn't just for students and it isn't just for drinking. For Yale staff and alumni, the Game also means feasting and fellowship.

Jane Stern '71MFA has co-authored dozens of food books with Michael Stern '69Grd, whom she met at Yale; the best known is Roadfood. Her latest book is Confessions of a Tarot Reader: Practical Advice From This Realm and Beyond.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Tailgating cuisine: Picnickers at the Bowl bring cheese and crackers, bruschetta, and shrimp to their feasts. View full image

My mission at the 2011 Yale-Harvard game was not to watch football. It was to find out, as a food writer, if the gustatory spirit of New Haven—home of clam pizza!—is reflected in the tailgating that goes on before the game. I've coauthored many food books, I wrote for Gourmet for 18 years, I'm now at Saveur, and I have a shelf full of James Beard awards attesting to my love of food. Armed with a golf cart, an all-access pass, and a big appetite, I plunged into the masses of Yalies, football fans, tailgating enthusiasts, and just plain folks to see what there was to eat.

The first thing that is obvious is that no one who comes to The Game early brings a bologna sandwich and a bottle of water. The day is for feasting, and tailgaters take this seriously. By the time the parking lots open, people are setting up their propane grills, stoking the charcoal in their Webers, mixing up their special seasoning mix, and unfurling the tablecloth.

My first trip around the parking lot brought me into the warm heart of the fans who love to cook as much as they love to watch football. Maybe because I was in a golf cart with a press pass around my neck, people immediately started offering me food. By the time the cart and I had moved 100 yards, I had sampled pulled pork, four types of meaty chili, three-bean salad, cocktail shrimp, two cheese-steak-and-egg sandwiches on Portuguese rolls, the world’s most delicious homemade broccoli and sausage bread, black and white brownies, and a pitch-black piece of homemade fudge with the density of Pluto.

As I stopped at each tailgate in one particular lot, I asked the chefs if they were Yalies. As it happened, not one was, although they felt deeply connected to the school. A wife pointed to her husband and proudly announced, "He has worked in janitorial services there for 28 years." A handsome man with calloused fingers and a Carhartt jacket said he works at the Yale Whale, where he keeps the ice smooth for the hockey games.

I was impressed by the homeyness and camaraderie of these friends of Yale. Then, in the distance, I saw a sea of white catering tents, and I pointed my cart in their direction. This part of the festivities is another side of tailgating—even though, aside from the sleek catering trucks, there was not a vehicle in site. Each tent was marked with a sign: Yale School of Medicine, Yale Class of '58, Association of Yale Alumni, and such. Against the enamel-blue sky of that bright autumn day, the flapping white tents looked unassailable.

Happily, they weren't. I sped from tent to tent, helping myself to tables of glorious food that would have passed muster at a celebrity wedding. No homemade chili or brownies here. Instead, wooden planks were heavy with oozing French cheeses and dainty slices of baguettes. There were bountiful salads of micro-greens and candied walnuts, and haunches of glazed ham and glistening roast beef, sliced by men in short black jackets and delivered on china plates.

In these tents, I spotted two different men dressed in old-style collegiate raccoon coats. One gave me a rousing "Boola Boola!" as if to identify himself to me in our secret tongue. The flapping tents felt formal and not as homey as the people on the other side of the fence, although the food was unarguably terrific.

The third species of tailgaters I encountered were the students—from Yale, Harvard, and some who said they were from Oxford, but I suspect they got their plummy accents from Harry Potter movies. This group looked most at home at the Yale Bowl: collegiate party animals whose mold has changed little since the first Yalie sat on the Fence. Eating seemed less important to them than drinking, and maybe even more exciting to them was screaming at nothing apparent that I could see. Every ten seconds I would see a student, cheeks red and hair tousled, let out a banshee war cry. Unlike the privileged tent people, or the friendly propane-tailgating crowd, they used The Game as a place to let off steam.

Seeing these unabashed Yalies made me realize how far from the heart of things I was when I attended the school. I had my own reasons for going to Yale, and they were sound, at least to me. The short list goes something like this: I love the color blue; I love bulldogs; and I love clam pizza. And so for the period of time I was attending Yale, I was very, very happy. But I was an art-school girl: screaming at football games was as alien to me as it would have been to walk down Chapel Street wearing deer antlers (which, done by an art student, would not have raised an eyebrow). Even though I was at Yale when Kingman Brewster reigned, and I still eat the occasional meal at Mory’s, I was never part of this core crowd. Driving past their exuberance made me feel old and sad. I would like to just scream occasionally for no reason at all, but at my age I would probably be arrested, or treated for Tourette’s.

Because I'd have felt like a complete idiot if I hadn't watched at least some of the game, and because the tailgating and the tents are mostly packed up by noon, I wandered into the stadium. What a perfect and beautiful place it is! The air on this November day was as invigorating as a wave breaking over a rock. I had no idea what was happening down on the field. From my seat, miniature guys in red were tackling miniature guys in blue, and it appeared from the crowd’s reaction that Yale was being trounced.

I didn't care. Because everywhere I looked there was a sea of blue, vendors were selling slices of pizza, and on the sidelines was Handsome Dan, the epitome of everything bulldog. I realized just then that every reason I wanted to go to Yale was correct.  

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