A Mobile Food and Beverage Bonanza
There exists a strange and bizarre subculture of football fanatics in the very heart of our fair city that, much like werewolves appearing only on the night of a full moon, materializes in parking lots surrounding Royal Memorial Stadium the nights before UT home games. I had heard rumors of this happening from folks at the university, where I work, but I was not prepared for what I found. It was a scene guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of UT's football foes, as well as any health departments, substance abuse counselors, and gastroenterologists within viewing range. A scene of utter and complete debauchery and excess -- of gluttony to rival anything Dante could have imagined. It was the mobile booze and food fiesta known as the Tailgaters Party, populated by the most devout groups of Orangebloods that Coach Mack Brown or Darrell Royal could have ever hoped for. I contacted the UT Athletic Department to determine where, exactly, I might go to locate these mysterious tailgaters. The spokesperson I talked to suggested I check out the grassy knoll to the south of the LBJ Museum before the next game, which had an 11am start time. The mention of the term "grassy knoll" and LBJ in the same breath led me to believe I was on the right path, but all I found was a funeral tent, free doughnuts, disco music, and a smattering of cheerleaders scarfing down the free carbos and sugar as fast as they could. Not much to report foodwise, nor the sort of activity that would get a crowd whipped up into a WWF-style frenzy.
Picture floating downriver against an upsurge of wall-to-wall salmon (or orange-shirted fans) heading upstream to spawn on an Alaskan river. Against such singularity of purpose I was lucky I made it to MLK alive. But when I got to the area, my perseverance was rewarded when I found the motherlode of tailgating parties in full swing, the sort of scene that would have made Bacchus proud. It was a hullabaloo of massive proportions. The entire area from MLK to 18th Street and from Trinity to North Congress was a megaconglomeration of rabid fans, in groups of varying size, drinking and eating like tomorrow was Y2K.
On subsequent trips, I found every single state-owned parking garage between MLK and 15th Street packed to the gills with tailgaters. These, however, are special tailgaters. They are all members of the Longhorn Foundation, and as such are entitled to exclusive rights to park there, with their own private police force of DPS cops looking for the telltale parking badges allowing entrance. You see stuff like temporary satellite dishes hanging off the third floor of the garage and new Suburbans in every other space. It was a little too tame and snooty for my tastes. And the construction of these garages has forced the tailgaters to the lots on MLK. They all used to be in the lots across from Scholz Garten, with ready access to the restrooms there.
But finding a location in the ever-decreasing space is not an easy task -- it takes dedication and perseverance. Like bands of gypsies that appear overnight with mobile encampments, the tailgaters start filtering into the parking lots on Friday afternoons before every home game. They circle the lots like buzzards, waiting for spaces to clear. And since it's the end of the work week, there are always a few state workers who sneak away from work early (this is the fondest wish of the reconnaissance teams of the tailgater crews, that a prime place can be attained as early as 3 or 3:30pm on Friday). The recon teams displace state office workers as soon as work lets out, grabbing parking spaces the second they are vacated by leaving sacrificial cars and RVs to claim their areas for the following day's festivities. One group referred to this procedure as "MCDO," or "mass car drop off." It might require a well-coordinated effort of up to six separate cars to firmly secure an area big enough for some of the groups. One picture that comes to mind is the jockeying for position in a henhouse at dusk, when the hens have to select their roost for the night. It can get ugly.
The Pre-Game Plan
This is very serious business, as there is a pecking order of sorts in terms of traditional locations. Tremendous pressure rests on the recon team to obtain the perfect spot (especially one under the shade of the big pecan trees). Some of the tailgating groups have partied in the same places for as long as 12 to 15 years, and when some young upstart grabs a long-held location, things can get a little testy. Verbal abuse and posturing are the norm, though, and the situation rarely comes to blows because, after all, they're all fans of the Horns. They're all there for the same reason.
Once party perimeters are established, the pressure's off for the recon teams. They can start drinking. Then, the next shift must swing into action. Mass food preparation work is underway at homes all over the state (some groups draw members from as far away as 350 miles that make the trek to every gathering). Huge smokers on trailers have to be delivered. Tents have to be erected. Porta Potties have to be dropped off. Kegs and margarita machines have to be set up, and ice deliveries need to be made. Portable generators (with backup fuel) need to be tested to make sure they can power the stereo systems, big screen TVs, and cooling fans.
Tons of ice chests full of every conceivable form of alcoholic beverage (and whole herds of beef and pork) need to be shuttled into place. One group pooled their money to buy an old beat-up van (appropriately painted orange, of course) with sole purpose of conveying the supplies of the group (and holding their spot). Furniture, ranging from card tables and folding chairs to three-piece sectional couches and Barcaloungers, has to be wrestled into place, and rugs laid out.
Some groups perform all of these tasks the night before so they can concentrate on partying all night, keeping crew members there around the clock in shifts. Others, usually the old salts, mobilize very early on Saturday morning, and shuttle everything to the site in pickups. It is amazing to watch the ebb and flow of vehicles into and out of the tightly constricted lots as critical cars and pickups arrive. But everyone seems to cooperate -- they're all Horns.
Before the Stanford game, I saw a group of guys who turned out to be young officers from Fort Hood -- the "FOOF" group, who describe themselves as "just your average drunken federal employees." They had rented a Ryder truck to haul down couches, overstuffed chairs, lamps, an Astroturf carpet painted with yard markers, kegs of beer, a wet bar, and a generator to power the big screen TV and stereo system, all set up under a large tarp. There was a huge BBQ pit loaded with brats, burgers, and chickens, and the requisite sides. They had been drinking all night, and had no intention of stopping.
Next, I was drawn to the screaming guitar of Stevie Ray, coming from two tailgaters, Jeff and James, "The Guys With the Sectional Couch." Their group, which can grow to 100 people for a critical game, is made up of the flag football team from Lucy's Retired Surfer's bar, "and a few Dell dudes thrown in."
"It's like a reunion of all the folks you never see," one member says, "and a great place to meet before the game. We get down!" They were doing brisket and sausage that day, but they change the menu for every game.
One of the more raucous groups, however, is the "Shotgun 30.com" group (http://www.shotgun30.com). They're a well-organized affair of twentysomethings, with committees and their own golf tournament. The name of the group refers to their practice of "shotgunning" beers as a group, starting three hours before kickoff, and repeating the ritual every 30 minutes. To shotgun a beer, a small hole is punched in the bottom of the can while it's held sideways. Then it's tilted upside down, and the top is popped, using atmospheric-pressure-assisted boost to force the beer down the gullet. One brave soul prides himself on his ability to bite the small hole with his teeth -- a practice that neither his mother, nor his dentist, would condone, I'm sure. They've got the tent, the sectional couch, TV, smoker, and the grub to go with it, and their ranks can rise as high as 200 participants. One game last year, they floated three kegs in three hours.
The "Big Gray Bus Group" uses the customized travel bus of a funny-car racing team as their base of operations, and they travel in it all over the country to every away game. They were the only voice of dissent I heard in three games of tailgating investigation. "We suck here," one member told me. "You go to any other school like Notre Dame or Nebraska, and you'll see what real tailgating is all about. We're a bunch of rank amateurs compared to them. At all of the other schools the parking lots are packed by 7am." Luckily he didn't say it very loudly. Then he said: "Tailgating should be about getting drunk, gambling, and hookers!" The reactions of the women in his group could have melted titanium, and he immediately shut his mouth.
The "Yah Yah Foundation" has huge numbers at every game; they are headquartered around an RV with an attached awning. On this day, they were having a massive shrimp boil, complete with corn, spuds, and venison sausage. In the past, they have had fish frys and other assorted treats.
The "BFN.net" group (http://www.bfn.net) proclaim themselves to be "the leaders in tailgate technology." They feast on fajitas and tamales cooked on a smoker called "Wally's Meat Wagon." BFM is a fairly organized group, and they have a complaint for the city. One of their members recently ambled into poison ivy while relieving himself under the Waller Creek Bridge, and he thought the city should do something about the poison ivy. They also are the originators of the aforementioned "Mass Car Drop Off."
Culinarily speaking, one of the most advanced groups I encountered was "The Defenders," who had a generator for their blended margaritas. Pete, the group chef, worked his way through school as one of the wacky and demented line cooks at the old G & M Steakhouse on the Drag. Pete brags that the group does all prep work on site, and in the past has done dishes as complex as Belgian waffles, eggs Benedict, and pizzas from scratch, grilled over an open fire. The day I was there, they were cooking 11é2-inch thick ribeye steaks with baked potatoes. "Clean-up is a problem," Pete says. "When some groups like the UT/MBAs leave their area trashed out, it gives all tailgaters a bad name. We pride ourselves on our clean-up, and our culinary tradition. Hook "em."
No BBQ smoker down there can compare to the custom-built monstrosity owned by Jason of the "Texas Tailgaters." It can cook for 250 to 300 people and has heated water, a sink, and double propane burners for saucepans, and the smoker section is 10 feet long if it's a foot. On the front of the smoker barrel is an ornamental metal orange longhorn a couple of feet across, and a huge UT Longhorns flag flutters above the whole thing. Their Web site (http://www.ehorns.com) provides a map of the parking lots, with all the regular group's sites noted.
"If there's animal fat involved, you can find it here," Katie from "Hornfans.com" (http://www.hornfans.com) says. "We're a heart attack waiting to happen. We usually have whatever's on sale at Sam's on the menu." That day they had over 100 pounds of ribs, sausage, and pork loin sizzling on their grill. Next to them was a group with a buzzing generator powering a margarita machine with "Burnt Orange Margaritas." And the "Halletsville Group" was having some absolutely delicious ribs, with deer and pork sausage mopped with a Cuban "Mojo Criolla" marinade that they obtain from an international grocer in San Antonio.
Kelly, from the "Blue and White Tent Gang," explains that "we eat lots of fattening stuff, but it's not to absorb the alcohol. Are you crazy? We don't want to ruin the buzz. It's mostly to help with the hangover from the night before." They were frying "a little Wildcat" (catfish some of the guys caught on a fishing trip) for the Kansas State game. They were screaming "Fry early, fry loud, fry late!" at the top of their lungs, as they referred to themselves as "The Catfish Homeboys." In the past they've done dove, quail, and gumbo, and were especially proud of having their orange pumpkin tortes shown on local TV, with them wearing their orange Santa hats.
Perhaps one of the most popular groups, especially with the women in the lots, is "The Porta Potti Party," the group that rents portable johns for every home game. "We do it as a public service, and it's strictly nonprofit. We set up a coffee can next to the doors, and people can pitch in whatever they want. If there's any profit, we don't put the can out for the last few games." The group has been going for the last 12 years, and started as a Gray Moser (#95) fan club. They've had as many as 200 people at a time and last year cooked 30 racks of ribs at a single game. They don't want to get too organized, because, as they say, "We'd rather have more beer than a T-shirt with our name on it. And remember, if you go away hungry, or sober, it's your own damn fault!"
The "Flask Section" group was grilling what they called "owlballs" before the Rice game (see recipes). They were especially tasty dove breasts, wrapped around pieces of jalapeño chiles and pineapple sections, wrapped in bacon. The group's unique approach is to make buttons for each game, and they handed out "Neuter the Wildcats" buttons for the K State game to anyone who would wear one.
The congeniality award for all tailgating groups must go to the "Cap'n Dan's Tailgate Extravaganza," a frisky and friendly group that definitely knows how to prepare for a game. They have "42" domino tourneys, and have a regulation washer pitching pit set up next to their area. "You don't go to a Horns game without eating beef cooked over the Red Devil, drinking Miller Lite, and screaming for the Horns," Cap'n Dan is fond of saying. "You need apples and oranges for scurvy, and sausage to fill you up." I asked Dan if scurvy was much of a problem in this corner of the parking lot, and he said, "You never can be too sure -- these are the Nineties." The Captain's group runs like clockwork, and they're known for cooking excellence.
The Post-Game Wrap-Up
Lance was Cap'n Dan's grillmeister one Saturday I was there, and he had a whole mess of pork and beef ribs, chicken, sausage, and brisket whipped up. The gals had made all the fixings and desserts. By the time I got through chowing down, I felt like one of those geese the French force feed to make foie gras. For the Nebraska game, Lance will be doing gator tail, fried oysters, and shrimp he got from a gator hunt he went on in Louisiana. Tom Blanton's fresh tomatillo salsa is a regular feature at the Captain's tailgate table. I can't say enough about it -- unquestionably the best I've ever eaten.
In a lot of ways, Cap'n Dan's group sums up the whole tailgate experience in the parking lots off of MLK. They're a group of old friends who are fervent fans of the Horns, and they've been meeting like this for years and years. It's the perfect example of camaraderie, and the group runs like a well-oiled machine -- and has a blast. Everyone knows their job, and gets it done for the good of all. Anyone is welcome to come by and have a bite and a beer, or just pitch washers or play a round of dominoes. They produce great food and make sure there are ample libations to fuel the fervor. They just want you to have a good time and cheer for the team. And about 20 to 30 minutes before start time, they do just that. There is a brief but well-orchestrated flurry of activity as everything is stashed away, and the group heads to the game en masse.
If you're a UT tailgate neophyte, as I was before this assignment, and have never experienced the madness that is the tailgater's party before a UT football game, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's what college football excitement is all about. There is not a better place in Austin to people-watch, and the spirit can really be infectious, even for an old hippie like myself. There wasn't a single group I encountered that didn't offer me food and drink and a hearty welcome. And you shouldn't be the least bit surprised to find me down there again, hanging out with the Cap'n Dan Tailgate Extravaganza. I need to show those boys the real way to pitch a washer.
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