The mere mention of the word “tailgating” among sports fans conjures cool, leaf-blown images of the fall and, particularly, football season. This anticipated, predominantly weekend engagement is regularly staged against the inviting autumn backdrop of beautiful people, ice-cold beverages and, of course, food.

Tailgating is a veritable game before the game. For many sports fans — particularly football fans — tailgating today is as much a feature of the modern sporting experience as the forward pass. This burgeoning American cultural phenomenon is ubiquitous, and it can be witnessed prior to kickoff in the parking lot of a professional team’s stadium or on the lazy, sprawling campus of a revered alma mater.

Tailgating has grown in recent years into the quintessential culinary sideshow of the modern sporting era — an Epicurean outdoor feast that precedes many sporting events. While modern tailgating has only recently (within the last 30 years) become popular, the practice of enjoying both food and football has post-Civil War, 19th-century roots.

In the beginning, there was only college football. Professional football did not arrive on the American sporting scene until the 1950s; the first college football game ironically occurred between Ivy League schools Rutgers University and Princeton University in New Brunswick as early as 1869. Twelve years later, in 1881, the first collegiate football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line occurred on the bluegrass at Old Stoll Field in Lexington, Ky.

Even during the earliest days of the sport, food and football were complementary. In those days, it was customary for the fans of each team to engage in a wild-fish-and-game supper before the contest, then revisit the leftovers after the game, where they relived the on-field exploits of the daring young “gridders.”

Because of football’s brutal nature, only the toughest young men — at its onset — played. In those days, players wore little protective equipment, unlike today’s participants. Instead, the young men commonly grew their hair long and wore it in a bun to cushion against the fierce bodily contact that typified the game. Furthermore, the most common way of bringing down a ball carrier during football’s late-19th century roots was to simply strike him in the face with a closed fist.

Amid the painful aftermath of the bloody North-South conflict of the Civil War, college football quickly bored its way into the core of the American cultural psyche. This was especially true in the South, where the game’s mythical connections to the lost cause of the Confederacy were omnipresent. For young men in the South, college football games presented an opportunity for them to recapture the pride they had been stripped of in the bitter conflict.

Furthermore, playing college football allowed these young men to excel at a tough physical game and, thereby, demonstrate their superiority over the teams from the North. In short, early football was a game that brought otherwise highly divergent national institutions like the North and the South together with a common purpose and point of cultural reference.

However, football was not only a veritable rite of passage for the players, but also for their adoring fans, who saw winning football and its social trappings — the rudiments of tailgating — as the grand redeemer of a pride and solidarity earlier lost at war.

For years, after the turn of the century until the advent of electric lighting and night-time football during the late-1920s and early-1930s, college football games were played almost exclusively during the day. Towering electric lamps and evening football games brought about the practice of hosting all-day parties at fans’ homes, where they would congregate and leisurely hop from house to house as kickoff approached.

Night games were a critical social development, since they allowed for cooler game-time temperatures, and for men and women to dress up for the popular pregame parties. Women commonly wore their best Sunday dresses adorned with team-colored corsages, while men frequently donned spiffy coats, ties,
derbies and fedoras.

These festive pregame jaunts continued unabated for 40 years or more until daytime college football on television pre-empted the house parties that previously were the norm. Along with much-needed athletic department revenue, TV coverage introduced the return of the dreaded daytime football games, which entirely precluded the practice of party hopping around town prior to the contest.

The alternative to not house partying was simple to the legions of football fans that were weaned on the ritual: Take the party to the stadium! And that they did, because even today, tailgating at or near a stadium is a social practice that seems to have found a continual flow of willing fall participants. Predictably, tailgating now occurs before night games and day games as college football’s fan base — and their propensity to tailgate — only grows with each passing year. Tailgating, which has been dubbed “the world’s fastest-growing outdoor sport,” has become so popular that some football fans enjoy it as much as the game itself — and that’s saying something, especially in the football-crazed American heartland.

One often-overlooked or understudied aspect of tailgating is its name. Simple logic leads one to surmise that the term describes the practice of having an outdoor picnic on the tailgate of a truck or station wagon, and this is largely understood to be true. However, no official etymology of the American word exists, further reinforcing the fledgling status of this fast-growing sporting tradition.

Why is tailgating so popular? The answer to that question is that tailgating has replaced the town or county fair as the most anticipated outdoor main event. In modern society, rarely do we congregate en masse with the opportunity to see extended family and spur the reunion of lasting friendships like when we tailgate. Some might say that it takes us back to a much simpler time, before air conditioning, when we were much more friendly and sociable.

So when you see your customers hitched up their family automobiles prepared for pregame activities with their numerous tailgating wares and eats, remember that the modern cultural ritual you are seeing fulfilled on game day is humbly rooted in the tumultuous times following the Civil War.

Furthermore, remember that tailgating is the last great free-for-all and the modern counterpart of the county fair — where, with only a lint-filled pocket, can you see and be seen along with some of the most attractive and outgoing fans of American food and sports.

Chris Warner is an Alabama-based writer and former radio talk show host. He is the author of “A Tailgater’s Guide To SEC Football Vol. IV,” and several other books. To contact Chris, visit his website at southernbeachreads.com.