The anatomy of a tailgate

Anatomy of a tailgate
Click the image above to view a full-size version. — pictures by Zoe Brown, words by Josie Neumann

It’s 7 a.m. and everyone around you is wearing costumes and face paint. Air horns, vuvuzelas and stereo equipment bungee-corded onto coolers appear out of nowhere. A ping pong ball lands at your feet and someone offers you a can of beer. This might be your heaven or hell—either way this is the Iowa City tailgating scene on a home football weekend.

For the uninitiated, I like to think of tailgating as a time when the whole town comes together—townies, transplants, students—and rallies for the same cause. Tailgating is the feast and celebration of a team before their game. At Iowa, it typically starts at dawn, and wouldn’t be complete without some of these iconic foods and beverages.

There are three types of tailgating food:


typically served buffet-style at a bar for those who want to drink early, but don’t want to be responsible for driving their car out of the lot an hour after the game. Depending on the time of day, this could be a dubious tray of scrambled eggs with a basket of bacon, or a chafing dish filled with endless hot wings.


a smorgasbord of offerings from local restaurants and street vendors. The classic of course, is the big-ass turkey leg. What else strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies than the home team gnawing on meat like cavemen? And for all the singles out there, this dish is a great conversation starter. I’ve met many a new friend by asking for a bite of their meat. I see now where the confusion may have occurred.

There are also delicious morsels for purchase if you are just passing through, or don’t feel like cooking for yourself. These are mostly grill or meat-oriented, but there is also pizza and the Midwest classic, the walking taco–a bag of Fritos with chili and shredded cheese on top.


in my mind, the best (and possibly worst) food comes from a home tailgate, either in someone’s house in University Heights, or prepared behind a vehicle that reserved its spot at 3 p.m. the previous day. If you have a slacker group of party people, all I can tell you is to stay away from lunchmeat and the warmed over potato salad.

If you have a good group of folks (parents for you undergrads), there’s usually a carefully prepared nine layer dip with the good kind of chips you never buy yourself, burgers and hotdogs lovingly grilled by a group of men debating how the season will go, and, if you’re lucky, someone will have brought your favorite treats from their hometown. Maybe grandma’s scotcharoos, or the local bakery’s apple cider donuts.

Major Tailgating Dos and Don’ts

  • DO eat a big breakfast and continue snacking if you drink.
  • DON’T show up to eat all someone’s food and not bring beer (unless it’s mom and dad).
  • DO bring saniwipes and hand sanitizer wherever you go in case the bathroom situation gets dire.
  • DON’T eat anything that falls on the ground. People will take pictures.
  • DO bring cash to get your turkey leg (or a cab).
  • DON’T overdo it. None of the businesses have a sense of humor about your vomit on their doorstep. You will miss the game and hang with the cops instead, and there will be no walking tacos.

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