Note: This is the first mention of sports on this blog, but not the last. We wouldn’t be doing the South justice without some mention of college sports and the surrounding festivities.
*Zelda would like the readers to know that she knows what’s right in the world and therefore does not support the University of Kentucky. L1C4, you all.
*Scout would like the readers to know that Zelda is clearly deluded to be a UofL fan. Go Cats. BBN For Life.
I went to my first SEC football game at two weeks old. That’s right, weeks. Every autumn of my formative years was colored in blue and white. To say that my maternal grandparents were mere fans would be a gross understatement. They followed the University of Kentucky football team around the Southeastern Conference in an RV for thirty-plus years, and my mother and I were with them at nearly every home game. With their gang of fellow devotees, they criss-crossed the South.
Nothing got in the way of Kentucky games. One year, my grandparent’s friends Jimmy and Jackie wanted to get married on a Saturday in the fall, Knowing my grandparents would be at the game, they showed up in front of the RV on Saturday morning and said, “We’re getting married, we want y’all there, so we’re doing it here.” Someone found a judge; rice was thrown. My Grandmother wrapped the plastic cutlery in Reynolds wrap and called it “silver.” Dixie cups and plates were fine china. She doesn’t remember the game, but she could never forget that.
So it should come as no surprise that I was indoctrinated into this craziness very young. As a child, I owned more than one mini-cheerleading uniform, and I watched the Cats lose (more often than not) with the best of them. My most colorful memories, however, were not of the Commonwealth Stadium bleachers, but of the adjacent parking lots. Because if there’s one thing the SEC does better than any other conference (besides, you know, football), it’s tailgating.
A conversation with a friend (a University of Florida fan) raised the question of why SEC tailgating sets the bar so much higher than the rest of college football. In the Southeastern conference, alcohol isn’t sold or allowed in the venue. The way we see it, there is a direct correlation between booze restrictions and the level of tailgating: Less beer/margaritas/mixed drinks in the stadium equals more in the parking lot…which in turn means earlier mornings, more food, more cornhole, and more truck bed dancing to country music. The SEC’s tailgating game is strong, and I have it to thank for some of my best childhood memories.
Four games into what is probably going to be another losing season (but here’s hoping!), I find myself looking back with fondness to the days of Tim Couch and Derek Abney and my grandmother’s myriad array of things to dip tortilla chips in. As in all great things Southern, food plays an integral role in tailgating. Gaga (as my grandmother is affectionately called — you haven’t heard the last of her) cooked for days: white chicken chili; spicy Mexican mini pizzas on rye toast; the amazing concoction that, for obvious reasons, we call fart dip.
Now the epic feasting is just one ingredient in the many-layered dip that is this long-standing Southern tradition. For many folks, the next thing that comes to mind is booze, and lots of it. However, I spent the bulk of tailgating years not of legal (or even you’re-close-enough) drinking age. So while most people focus on the cases of beer, shotgunned or drunk out of plastic cups, or on the big batches of homemade margaritas slurped down in the fading heat of an Indian summer, for me what makes the experience is the people. As a kid, the asphalt was my stage, and my grandparents’ crew my delightful education in humanity: the best people watching this side of the Mississippi.
We’d pull in the day before the game, and my grandparents would park with the “Road Cats,” their RV club: the Kellermans, the Zarankas, Bill, Betty, Sissy, another Bill, three more Betty’s, some people I knew by face but whose names I struggled to remember. Everyone would set up their spread: wings, dips, chips, pretz, the entire Joey Tribbiani snack food family. I’d spend the day prancing around in my cheerleading outfit, saying hi to everyone from my mom’s high school teacher to the newbies in the lot with the fancy-schmancy RV, and begging Gaga to cut me a piece of the homemade brownies before we finished the savory snacks.
The night before the game, we’d make gift bags for the players and take them to the hotel. I’d get to meet the real Kentucky cheerleaders (the UK squad has won the national championship 20 times, so this to me was a big deal). One time, Tim Couch even signed one of my jerseys. It was the coolest day of my then seven-year-old life.
These weekends in Lexington and elsewhere are some of my favorite childhood memories, and now that I’m older I often find myself wishing I could go back — just hop in the car and spend the day carryin’ on with good people, good food, and, most likely, bad football. Alas, most game days I find myself in the concrete jungle of New York City rather than among the rolling hills of the Bluegrass. So I pop open a can of beer (my tastes, I have to say, have matured beyond the Miller Lite we used to drink by the cooler-load), dig out Gaga’s recipe for fart dip, gather my friends close, and give them Yankees an education in how football is done right.