At LSU, the real action takes place just beyond the stadium gates
It’s 7 am, six and a half hours before kickoff, and with the mercury lingering near the freezing mark, the warmest spot to be is hovering over a colossal cauldron of slow-simmering jambalaya. Todd Simoneaux, head cook at this tailgate site, ticks off the jambalaya’s ingredient list: thirty-seven pounds of onion, bell pepper, celery seasoning; thirty pounds each of chicken, smoked sausage, and chopped pork (which he calls “temple meat”); fifty pounds of rice; seven gallons of water. Just in case the crowd comes hungry, a smoker holds a whole hog—deboned, injected with garlic butter, and stuffed with cornbread dressing—alongside a half dozen Boston butts. It’s enough food to feed 300 people.
For the past twenty-eight years, from their traditional tailgating spot on South Stadium Drive, near the west and south entrances to Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium, Simoneaux and his buddies have made sure that the football-adoring crowds enter the game well fed. Today, besides feeding a couple hundred LSU fanatics, they will serve, gratis, dozens of stadium ushers and security and even a few visiting University of Arkansas Razorback fans. “I hate reading on the blogs that LSU people aren’t nice,” Simoneaux tells me. “I think we fed more Texas A&M people last week than LSU people.”
37 pounds of onions, bell peppers, and celery seasoning
30 pounds each of chicken, smoked sausage, and chopped pork
50 pounds of rice
7 gallons of water
*Just in case the crowd comes hungry, a smoker holds a whole hog—deboned, injected with garlic butter, and stuffed with cornbread dressing—alongside a half dozen Boston butts.
If you want to know the highs (and lows) of the Southern culinary scene, meander around an SEC football tailgate. The scene is the archetypal all-ages block party: college-aged students drinking like adults and adults drinking like college students. Most everyone eats the same (that is, too much) while comparing speculative game plans; flaunting the sizes of their RVs, TVs, and pig smokers; and cheerfully heckling the opposing fans (while inviting them over for a beer and bowl of gumbo). It’s a study in boasting, booing, and excess, but likewise an example of gamesmanship and camaraderie, a love for the game and the grill.
At the entrance to Touchdown Village #2, a sprawling parking lot turned tailgate arena, I’m greeted by a pig’s head on a stick, Lord of the Flies-style. It has already been barbecued and smells delectable; I’m hungry and have to force myself not to pick a charred bit of skin and meat for tasting.
The hundreds of RVs that fill the “village” are just flipping on their generators; exhaust mingles with the smell of eggs and bacon frying in skillets over portable and makeshift stoves. Most of these buses cost a small fortune. Some have removable side panels that reveal bathtub-sized flat-screen televisions, others are wired for DJ booths, and most feature fully stocked roll-out bars. Those buses that aren’t canvased in custom purple and gold paint jobs are at least festooned with stringed lights and foil bunting in LSU’s gaudy color scheme. Many LSU fans tell me that they don’t even attend the game, that the best seats, finest food, and cleanest restrooms are right here. Plus, at your bus you can drink.
That’s the story at a roundup of five buses arranged like a protective circle of covered wagons in the midst of a Wild West convoy. This group of family and friends from the Baton Rouge area, like many SEC fans, has taken to cooking and consuming the opponent’s mascot. When the Clemson Tigers play the Gamecocks of the University of South Carolina, they’ll roast dozens of chickens, and maybe a capon or two. Leading up to a matchup with the rival University of Florida Gators, they’ll, of course, grill a whole alligator. Today most every tailgate site—whether using fire, fancy oven, or a local invention called the Cajun microwave—is cooking a whole pig.
The pulled pork at this tailgate is good, but the accompanying gumbo is superb. Made by Daniel Newman, it’s spicy, smoky, and meaty, strewn with chicken, andouille, and tasso, a perfect bit of sustenance to resume my chilly walk along the tailgate crawl.
Deeper into the depths of Touchdown Village #2—away from the ESPN cameras and the children outfitted with mini pom-poms and football helmets—the debauchery ramps up by several degrees. There’s a group of gentlemen playing a beer pong match with red plastic cups full of cinnamon whisky. Nearby, someone’s grandmother is wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggling it to LMFAO’s electro-raunch hit “Sexy and I Know It.” Kickoff is still another four and a half hours away.
I run across a particularly rowdy bunch of a hundred or so tailgaters who have branded themselves the Louisiana State Skool of Misfitz (printed on the side of their bus). They have enough canned beer, meat, and karaoke to last a week. Everyone’s well lubricated and waiting for the hog to come off the grill. That’s including the Arkansas fans huddling in the far corner, each decked out in their team’s conspicuous shade of cardinal red. Friends of friends of friends in enemy territory, they’re safe from harassment here.
I take a tour of the group’s digs, a converted yellow school bus, with head Misfit Jason Meaux. “Tailgating for Dummies 101,” he says before handing me a boozy-sweet concoction of various juices drowned in 190-proof grain alcohol. I can’t tell if he is referring to the name of the drink or offering to become my tailgating Yoda, but I accept both.
The Misfitz bus is pimped out with plush purple seats, black lights, and a stripper pole, which he catches me eyeing. “That’s a safety pole. Stripper poles are brass,” he answers before I can ask. I make a mental note to stop by after the game.
Stumbling back outside I encounter Ricky Bell, who has, for three hours, been continuously stirring a cast-iron kettle filled with thirty pounds of pork skins. He shouts, by way of introduction, over the roar of the propane flame, “I was taught by the Cracklings King of Sorrento, Snook Travo.” Although I might not trust a man named Snook Travo if I met him face-to-face, deeming him the King of Pork Skins is reason enough for me to stick around.
“This is not something you can just learn,” he says. “You just do.” I watch as Bell continues to do what he does. Like a wiry running back at midfield, scampering around linemen, eluding tackles, and dashing toward the end zone, he is all kinetic finesse. He’s stirring, watching, drinking, worrying, shaking, drinking, dancing, adding ice and water to the pot, sweating, and drinking.
Finally, the skins are on the table: seasoned, served on greasy newspaper, and quickly besieged by a pack of hungry tailgaters. All of us are juggling hot skins in cold hands, popping them in our mouths, chewing through fat and flesh. “This is better than the game,” I think to myself. And as I reach across the crackling pile one last time, singling out a prime piece I’ve been eyeing, a vermilion flash darts across the table. I look up just in time to see a Razorback fan toss the pig skin into his mouth.