It just so happened that the week before the UNC-Charlotte 49ers football team took to the field for the first time in history, I was getting schooled on the art of the tailgate by local food photographer and blogger Taylor Mathis. Well, I was being schooled by his book. He was already on a book tour around the region, signing autographs and kissing babies.
The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South published in early August, with the help of the University of North Carolina Press and Mathis' mother, Sally James, who developed all 110 recipes. The book explores college football culture, specifically game day traditions built around the festive art of the pre-game.
It is a compilation of traditions and inspirations Mathis collected while on the road meeting, eating with and celebrating with some of the nation's most diehard collegiate fans. He spent two-and-a-half seasons traversing 12 Southern states, attending 35 different college games at stadiums across the country to experience tailgating culture at its finest. My alma mater, the University of Florida, was on the roster of worthy universities, with fans pictured in the book riding a motorized cooler to the tailgate. Can you get a DUI for that?
Thus armed with knowledge of university traditions and tailgating culture, I headed to UNC-Charlotte to explore the newly formed arm of the Niner Nation and to see how they stacked up against some of the nation's most seasoned football party fans, as outlined by Mathis, my tailgating tour guide.
The book emphasizes the importance of coordinating team spirit, from clothing to accessories and even foods — a "team theme" is what Mathis calls it. On Aug. 31, game day at the UNC-Charlotte campus, "Niner" green and gold covered the sidewalks as students and alumni proudly displayed team spirit, all the way down to their green shoes. Tailgating families, a term Mathis uses for any group of people who join together to support their team, enthusiastically bedecked every bit of equipment they had in team colors.
Brent Younts, a '93 UNCC alum, showed off the custom grill attached to the back of his truck. The grill, propane tank, water cooler and food coolers were tastefully covered in UNCC decals created by Younts himself. He says he began work on the grill display as soon as he heard UNCC was getting a team. Four years ago.
Game time was that afternoon, and UNCC opened its doors bright and early at 8 a.m. for tailgaters. Breakfast items and mimosas were in full swing, including ham-and-egg biscuits and bite-sized crab frittatas. I was secretly hoping to find the doughnut French toast contained in the breakfast section of The Southern Tailgating Cookbook, a favorite of the Wake Forest crowd and a Krispy Kreme institution, but no such luck.
What I did find was more nods to true tailgating culture on the UNCC campus. A sidebar in Mathis' book called "unique tailgating transportation" found a real-life manifestation in the UNCC parking lot. The "Normbulance," an old ambulance converted into a fully operational party-mobile by '96 alum Rob Diddle and named after UNCC's mascot, Norm the Niner, was properly pumping up the pregame crowd. For the last two years, Diddle has put his heart, soul and disposable income into building a tailgater's dream, complete with a full bar, built-in flat-screen television, refrigerator and sound system. Another great feature of the truck? Complimentary green Jell-O shots.
When I asked Mathis what he hoped to see come out of Niner Nation, he said, "a player's walk," a tradition where the players ceremoniously march into the stadium, rousing the support and cheers of their beloved fans. I witnessed the team's first-ever player's walk to the heart-pounding beats of the drum line, with football fans who didn't even know they were football fans until that very moment.
There was nothing amateur about the tailgating spirit displayed at UNC-Charlotte's inaugural football game — a game in which the long-awaited 49ers crushed their opponents in a 52-7 victory. And, the tailgating scene? One for the books.
The Southern Tailgating Cookbook is available at Park Road Books and Barnes & Noble in Charlotte and may also be purchased at Amazon.com and from the UNC Press.
Granny Smith Apple Salsa
Makes about 7 cups
1⁄2 cup fresh lime juice
1 1⁄2 cups diced Granny Smith apples
5 cups seeded and chopped Roma tomatoes, drained on paper towels
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 cup chopped yellow onions
3⁄4 cup seeded and diced poblano peppers
1⁄4 cup seeded and finely diced jalapeño peppers
1⁄2 cup chopped shallots
1 tablespoon grated lime zest
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon McCormick Coarse Ground Black Pepper
As soon as you've diced the apples, place them with the lime juice in a medium-sized bowl and stir.
In a large bowl, add the rest of the ingredients. Stir in the apples and lime juice until all ingredients are evenly mixed together. Store in a sealable container and refrigerate overnight. On game day, keep in a cooler until ready to serve. Stir again before serving.
— Recipe taken from The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football, and the South by Taylor Mathis.