Whether you’re a fan of the game or just of game-day food, there’s no denying the appeal of football cuisine. For this month’s recommendations, I set out to assemble an all-star lineup of the best of Food Network Library’s tailgating cookbooks. I fast found myself slipping down a rabbit hole into a vast and unfamiliar world of community cookbooks devoted to collegiate tailgating — a world where the NCAA begins to look like one massive Junior League that’s as devoted to recipes as to pass receptions.
It was amazing how numerous these cookbooks turned out to be (ripe terrain for a collector, for sure). To name just a few: Tar Heel Tailgating (University of North Carolina), Purdue Alumnus Tailgate Recipe Cookbook, University of Texas Longhorns’ Cookbook, Teatime to Tailgates (Kansas State University), Rocky Top Saturdays (University of Tennessee) and my favorite (in title, at least) Let the Big Dawg Eat (University of Georgia).
Now, I would love to recommend three or four of these books from the library’s collection, but, sadly, we do not carry such a deep bench on the collegiate front. We do, however, have some fine players from what might be considered the pro ranks — books by noted authors that, while lacking some of the endearing amateurism of the collegiate fan club books, have much to recommend them for rock-solid recipes, clear presentation, national scope and sheer utility. So whether you’re out braving the cold or hosting a game-day watch party (“indoor tailgating” is Pableaux Johnson’s apt term), make any of the three cookbooks that follow your playbook and you can’t help but win big.
ESPN Gameday Gourmet, Pableaux Johnson (2007)
Pableaux, a well-regarded food journalist and an expert in Louisiana food culture, understands that tailgating — that distinctive amalgam of picnic, potluck and backyard barbecue — is regional American cooking at its vernacular best. His Gameday Gourmet brims with wit and punning humor (lack of an oven thermometer is a “rookie mistake”), but he’s serious about rooting recipes in place: His recipe for Union Bay Salmon carries a vivid headnote about tailgating by boat (“stern-gating”) at the University of Washington. His book doesn’t fancify, and it doesn’t imagine a tailgating cuisine of the future; it plants itself in the here and now of actual tailgate cooking. The voices of ESPN broadcasters chime in here and there, mostly to good and comic effect — witness Mike Golic’s introductory essay on Notre Dame tailgating The South Bend Diet. The book isn’t long on looks — no pictures, no graphics — but it more than gets the job done and honors its subject in the process.
The Tailgater’s Cookbook, David Joachim (2005)
David is a cookbook machine. He’s written more than 30 — smart, clear, well-edited cookbooks with recipes that just work. His Tailgater’s Cookbook is no different. You’ll find straightforward recipes that tilt Italian but cover all the tailgate classics, from beer-braised brats to beer-can chicken to smoked ribs. David’s generous with his how-tos — how to plan, pack, set up, clean up — and he peppers the book with fun digressions into history and science. Particularly useful is the division of recipes into Before You Go, When You Get There, and Neighborly Tips.
John Madden’s Ultimate Tailgating, John Madden with Peter Kaminsky (1998)
From the legendary coach and broadcaster, with writing assistance from one of the very best food-writers/cookbook authors in the business, this one’s much more than a collection of recipes: It’s a love letter to NFL tailgating. The book is downright populated with characters and stories from John’s vast experience: among them, Bob Harris, a Staten Island plumber and Giants fan who cooks with a blowtorch, and John Delemba, who has tailgated Steelers games for decades without attending a single game because he’d rather be tailgating. Nearly all of the recipes have been contributed by fans, players and colleagues, turning Ultimate Tailgating into its own kind of community cookbook. No other book we’ve seen so successfully brings to life the remarkable culture and camaraderie of football tailgating.