At the Table

A Barbecue Expert’s Top Tips for Tailgating

By: The Local Palate

Michael Letchworth of Sam Jones BBQ has rules. When it comes to tailgating, that is. After all, the business partner and long-time friend of barbecue savant Sam Jones has had plenty of experience hosting outdoor cooking experiences around his home in eastern North Carolina. 

Michael Letchworth seasoning a lowcountry boil for a tailgate.

“I’ve always been the type of person that likes to plan parties and get togethers,” he says. “I’m not the biggest sports fan, but tailgating is the chance for me to be thoughtful and intentional with my planning.” 

This innate sense of hospitality and appreciation for North Carolina barbecue made him a top candidate to assist his childhood friend (Jones) in opening the popular Sam Jones BBQ restaurants in Greenville and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Though he’s since shifted away from the kitchen and into the operations side of the restaurant, Letchworth still seeks out any opportunity to gather around food and drink. A background in smoking meat outdoors and mass preparing sides to serve at the restaurant have shaped his no-nonsense approach when it comes to cooking for others. “Tailgating is a commitment of effort and time,” he says. His efficient habits, thinking ahead, and adopting a less-is-more mindset are key to hosting a successful tailgate. Here he shares four ways to create a tailgate where all attendees—including the host—have fun.

Sam Jones BBQ-Approved Tricks for a Stress-Free Tailgate

Plan ahead

“If there’s any prep that needs to be done prior to the tailgate, do it before you even show up,” Letchworth says. His rule of thumb is anything with more than a one hour cook time should be made in advance.

Other time-saving moves Letchworth recommends include:

Making dips the night before.

Making a big batch of chili one or two weeks before the tailgate and freezing it. 

Refrigerate drinks before leaving for the tailgating site. No one likes waiting for their drinks to chill down.

Make a timeline

Don’t be the person putting ribs on the smoker two hours before game time. “You don’t want to tell people you’re going to cook something that actually does’t have time to cook,” Letchworth says. This isn’t just for smoked meats or other “projects” meals. Ribs, wings, jalapeño poppers, skewers, and more can be cooked ahead of time and then re-heated on the grill at the tailgate.

Think about everyone’s tastes

Natural Lite is Letchworth’s drink of choice at tailgates. However, he’s grown to include options for those choosing not to drink or younger attendees, rounding out the cooler with bottled waters and Capri Suns.

Don’t over do it

Letchworth often sees people’s obsessing about festive tailgating decor compete instead of focusing on the food. “What annoys me about tailgating is that people want to bring a bunch of stuff.” He prefers arranging low-country boils and meats over a disposable tablecloth or newspaper that can get tossed into the trash when cleaning up. Not the time to breakout matching china sets either—no one will notice if you serve food on paper plates. Similarly, he recommends picking up a big tray of fresh cut fruit or nuggets from Chick-fil-A for an easy snack to enjoy while the burgers, ribs, and wings heat. 

Michael Letchworth’s No-Stress Tailgate Menu

Image of Sam Jones' BBQ Baked Beans in a skillet
Image by Denny Culbert

Sam Jones’ BBQ Baked Beans

Easily scaled into larger batches, Jones’ adapted his great uncle’s recipe for barbecue baked beans into a delicious side dish for cookouts. Don’t shy from scaling up—the leftovers turn better over the second and third day.

Sam Jones' Sweet Coleslaw in a paper basket with a fork
Image by @samjonesbbq (Instagram)

Sam Jones’ Sweet Coleslaw

Sam Jones’ simple mayonnaise-based dressing in this sweet coleslaw recipe cuts through the bitter cabbage flavor, no matter the time of year. This crunchy-meets-creamy side dish is well-suited for barbecues, cookouts, tailgates, and any outdoor gathering when you’re looking to feed the masses.

Lowcountry boil on a wooden table, with shrimp, corn, crabs, celery, potatoes, and lemons

Game Day Lowcountry Boil

A lowcountry boil is one of Letchworth’s staples for tailgates and game day festivities. Lowcountry boils can feed a crowd and, as Letchworth says, “I like something I can dump on the table, then roll up the tablecloth afterwards and toss it.” His move is to shop at Costco or Sam’s Club for ingredients, like little new potatoes, onions, and lemons, that he can toss into the steamer basket.

Pork tenderloin for tailgating

Easy Smoked Tenderloin

This two-ingredient recipe is easy pull off while tailgating before the game. However, if you want to prep in advance, you can grill or smoke the meat the evening before, and then warm it over the grill before it’s time to serve.

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