Different religions make overlapping claims as to what constitutes a holy place. Ritual transience is a way of keeping the peace. People of similar convictions come together in sacred spaces for a period of time and then disperse, altered by their experience.
If the best tailgating venues in Iowa don’t perfectly fit that definition of holy shrine, they can certainly wear it with an extra pair of wool socks. Whether paying homage to the Hawkeyes, the Cyclones, small college or high school teams, sprint cars, or NASCAR, Iowa tailgaters in many ways resemble pilgrims to Old World shrines. All assemble to celebrate their common enthusiasms, bearing the colors and flags of their affiliations. All stay just long enough to renew their faith and allegiances with their brethren. Many camp out before entering the holy space. All are provided with numerous opportunities to purchase memorials of their experiences or new ways to show their true colors. And no one stays past the proper time to leave. Tailgating has become unholy communion, characterized by sharing, camaraderie, and reaching out to strangers who profess a similar faith.
It’s also become a picnic on steroids, a quaint 19th-century custom hitched up to an air-conditioned monster truck and dragged into the latter part of the 20th century. Iowa tailgating is today a thoroughly postmodern celebration of high technology. Picnics were a rite of summer in the days before air-conditioning, when it was cooler to eat outdoors than indoors. If you remember those days, you probably still have a wicker basket with a red-and-white-checked tablecloth in your attic. If not, then your idea of eating outdoors probably includes an SUV, a supersize van, or a motor home.
Like most things even remotely holy, Iowa tailgating has multiple personalities. On the most obvious level, it personifies farm belt machismo — the oversize, gas-guzzling style of trailer-length grills, circus-size tents, $500,000 motor homes, and masses of red meat. (Hawkeye tailgaters can shift into four-wheel drive, jump curbs, and set up camp in steep gullies where wildlife hides from the roar of the nearby crowds.)
Behind the tinted-glass windshield of social analysis however, our tailgating is also a throwback to a kinder, gentler Iowa. In the last half century other forms of social intercourse withered as Iowans insulated their homes, enclosed their porches, and stopped bothering to say hello to their neighbors. During the same period, they also began going to football games hours — even days — before kickoff so they could break bread with other devotees of the trinity of unholy communion: sausage, beer, and sport.
Even within Iowa’s primary autumn tailgating shrines — Jack Trice Stadium and Kinnick Stadium — tailgating takes on different personas. Trice is mostly surrounded by acreages of asphalt — prime habitat for corporate tents, long trailers, and big motor homes. The scene in Ames seems to fit the school’s image as a practical college of science and engineering. Kinnick is surrounded by more green and wooded spaces.
Pilots have said that on game days the area around Trice looks like a parking lot by a national beach — a tight, colorful concentration of tents and vehicles — while Kinnick looks more like a national park — tailgaters spread out over the nooks and crannies of golf courses and residential yards, hidden amongst old-growth trees. That seems to fit the school’s liberal arts image, aesthetics trumping practicality and nature coexisting with mankind rather than conquering it.
’Tis the Season
Although summer brings fervent devotees to Newton and Knoxville for car races, autumn is still the main tailgating season in Iowa. Football and milder weather inspire pilgrims to happily cart grills, coolers, wood, charcoal, butane, furniture, fireplaces, and giant tents across the state. Though autumn is no longer the only time of year that supports the tailgating lifestyle, it is still the best positioned to do so.
The football season begins as August ends, when the black Iowa earth yields the best tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, onions, and peppers on Earth. It concludes in the chill winds of November, when harvest ends and the fruits of farmers’ labors have been put up for winter. From gazpacho and homemade sausages to sweet corn chowder and hot unpasteurized apple cider, the Iowa football season is a movable feast of the state’s homegrown bounty.
Tailgating has also been altered by its disciples. Over decades its menus have progressed from carryout deli and brand-name hot dogs to serious on-site smokehouse delicacies and specialized sausages from free-range herds of pigs, cattle, elk, buffalo, and deer. The biggest adjustment has been a reaction to starting times. Most college games now begin in the morning, so breakfast has become as big an event as lunch and dinner. Omelets, huevos rancheros, private-locker sausages, and French toast with freshly drawn maple syrup are being served by the stylish early birds in Iowa.
Tailgating style is further defined by pride in local foods. In Wisconsin fervent tailgaters have pimped the state’s brats, beers, and cheeses for nearly a century. Iowans just got started praising the food glories of their state in the last decade. As TV cameras shrank the world, bringing something to the party from your backyard, or at least from a neighbor’s backyard, became chic.
The food and travel networks don’t show up in Iowa looking for foods one can find anywhere. So a serious Iowan sets today’s tailgating table with the unique bounty of his state, such as foods from his local small-town locker or from some small Iowa company that goes an extra mile to put something of distinction and quality on the table.
Body & Soul
Sausage represents the body of unholy communion. It’s versatile — accepted fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sales in the Midwest have been growing by 11 percent a year for a decade. Not so coincidentally, the popularity of tailgating has, too. Americans consume about 20 billion sausages a year, with almost half of the national consumption in the South and Great Lakes — the primary tailgating areas of America.
As meat culture changed in the last 50 years, many small-town lockers and small companies were swallowed up by agribusiness giants. The ones that survived did so with superior products that appealed to people who care about the way their food is raised and prepared.
It’s not unusual for tailgaters in Iowa to bring sausages made at their local lockers from their autumn hunting excursions for venison, elk, quail, duck, and geese. Tailgaters from different parts of the state will even trade sausages: some lamb from Sioux County for some Henry County elk, some Montgomery County venison brats for some Winneshiek County Czech brats.
If sausage is the body of this communion, its soul is more intoxicating. Templeton Rye whiskey is now an Iowa tailgating status symbol. Cedar Ridge lamponcello and limoncello, grappa, and brandies, and Clearheart vodka, rum, and gin all keep fans warm on cold afternoons. Peace Tree Brewery products from Knoxville, hometown of the National Sprint Car championships, are the latest hot Iowa items. Hometown beers from Madhouse Brewing Company rule at the Newton Speedway, as do Olde Main beers from Ames at Jack Trice and Millstream beverages from Amana (just outside Iowa City) at Kinnick.
It’s no accident that all four of the state’s most popular home-brewed labels originate in the state’s four major tailgating sites. Nothing spreads word-of-mouth marketing faster than tailgating memories.
Hawk’s Soy Nut Slaw
4 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1 cup soy oil
1 tablespoon dried basil
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch chopped cilantro
1 cup dried cranberries
12 ounces soy nuts
10 ounces broccoli slaw
1 bunch diced green onions
Whisk the vinegar, oil, and herbs until slightly emulsified.
Toss with remaining ingredients.
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
Cyd’s Cy Rye Julep
2 teaspoons water
2½ ounces Templeton Rye whiskey
Ina Collins glass muddle leaves of 3 mint sprigs, powdered sugar, and water. Fill the glass with crushed ice and add whiskey. Top with more ice and garnish with a mint sprig. Serve with a straw.