Party in the Parking Lot – A Brief History of Tailgating


The leaves are turning, the kids are learning (hopefully), and football fans are yearning for a winning season. But as Homer Simpson said, “The game is nothing. The real reason we Americans put up with sports is for this. Behold, the tailgate party! The pinnacle of human achievement. Since the dawn of parking lots man has sought to stuff his guts with food and alcohol in anticipation of watching others exercise.” But the practice started long before the dawn of parking lots.

John Sherry, a University of Notre Dame cultural anthropologist, did a two-year study of college tailgating, “Grooving in the Ludic Foodscape,” and found ties as far back as the harvest celebrations in ancient Rome and Greece. But tailgating in the U.S. had a decidedly infamous beginning.



Near the beginning of the Civil War, citizens from Washington, DC, packed their picnic baskets and traveled 25 miles to Manassas, Virginia, to watch members of the Union and Confederate armies battle it out at the first Battle of Bull Run. It became one of the first documented instances in American history of people cheering at an event while sharing food and company, as horrifying as that sounds.


Grilling from the back of a pickup truck is a quintessential tailgate image. But today’s tailgating flatbeds, hatchbacks, and minivans owe much to the Texas invention of the chuck wagon. The horse-drawn wagon was one of the most important elements of the wagon train, housing the food and the means to cook it for cowboys and other weary travelers, as well as providing a handy table and prep area.


The 1869 rivalry between Rutgers and Princeton, often considered the first American football game, is one of the first sporting events at which both fans and players wore identifying colors and headwear. Snacks came later in the early 20th century at Yale University home games. Since parking was scarce, fans of the opposing team arrived early at the stadium, traveling by bus or train and bringing food and drinks to fortify themselves while awaiting kickoff.


On the pro level, the Green Bay Packers joining the NFL in 1921 is cited by many as the beginning of today’s modern tailgating. At the time, Jazz Age cheeseheads backed their trucks into the old City Stadium and watched the game with snacks from their vehicle beds.


Over the years, tailgating has spread to concerts, events, and other sports, though none has had the same widespread impact as football. According to a study by and Ticketcity, the average spending on tailgating is $199 per game. The food breakdown looks something like this:

Finger foods and easy clean-up reign. And while hamburgers, steaks, and hot dogs are still king of the grill, don’t be surprised if you see espresso makers, pizza ovens, or even a full taco bar. And in the great tradition of Homer Simpson, true diehards rig up their own television and don’t even bother attending the game.

“The idea of getting out of your house and feasting and drinking somewhere else is a pretty old tradition,” John Sherry told USA Today. “People eat and drink and build up community in the process. It’s one last blowout before we hunker down for winter.”

If you’re looking for that one last blowout, Charitybuzz has some great football experiences up for auction benefiting some equally great causes. No matter your tailgating practices, eat, drink, and be merry. You are part of a proud tradition.

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