(Food Network Magazine, Fall 2006)

On a typical fall Saturday when the Pennsylvania State University football team is playing at home, 80,000 fans will come to tailgate: eating and hanging out near their vehicles in the parking lot before the game. Most will bring gas or charcoal grills. For last year’s alumni weekend game, restaurant owner Scott Snider and deli owner Ken Bond also brought sand.

The friends needed it for the Hawaiian-luau-themed retreat they created around their R.V. They assembled a faux beach and a pool and served tropical blue cocktails to reflect the team colors, blue and white. At other games, the two have set up a mini-discotheque with a floor that lights up, carted in a propane-heated hot tub, and made a blue and white meal featuring hotdogs and bread dyed blue.

This new breed of pre-game picnicker arrives three to four hours before the event in cars painted in team colors and unpacks stereos and sometimes karaoke machines along with full-size grills. After the game, they post photos and recipes to their tailgating Web sites.

It’s no wonder 40 percent of tailgaters never even make it out of the parking lot, according to John Largent, president of the San Antonio-based American Tailgaters Association (ATA). Watching the day’s event on the big-screen TV they brought can be just as much fun.

Thirty-six million people tailgated at least once in 2005, according to the ATA. About half of these tailgated six to 10 times that year. Football games and NASCAR races draw most tailgaters, though fans also feast at horseracing tracks and before concerts. Even the Santa Fe Opera’s parking lot hosts diners before performances—many wearing black-tie, of course.

Tailgaters’ numbers are increasing as fans of more sports, like professional lacrosse and high school football, make eating in the parking lot their pre-game ritual, too. Most pro leagues and colleges promote tailgating, often by sponsoring cook-off contests, because it generates team loyalty. One exception is major league baseball; its food vendors’ rights to sell hotdogs extend out into the parking lots, and they discourage fans from bringing their own.

Curiously, there was tailgating before there were tailgates. In the mid-1800s, cooks dished out stew from the backs of chuckwagons to cowboys on the cattle trails. Students ate next to their horse-and-buggies before the first college football game, between Rutgers and Princeton, in 1869. When the Ford Motor Co. introduced the 1927 Model A Station Wagon, sports fans used its fold-down tailgate, the first of its kind, as a table and attached the name to their pre-game picnicking. Now, vehicles come with “tailgating features,” such as electrical outlets at the back.

What’s usually on the menu? It depends on where you park your truck. Regional cuisine shares cooler space with the ever-popular burgers and bratwurst, so you’ll find swordfish in California, bison in Montana, and gumbo in Louisiana.

With such ambitious food, it takes a well-oiled operation to be a 21st-century tailgater. Tim Gill, general manager of Stocker Chevrolet in State College, Pa., and his wife have cooked creative meals before Penn State football games for almost eight years, ranging from lobster to grouper and deep-fried turkeys for a game close to Thanksgiving. Once they brought a chocolate fountain.

“We have it down to a science,” says Mr. Gill. The Gills have a van they use only for tailgating in which they store their two grills, along with other necessities like a 10-by-18-foot canopy and tables. They pick a menu on Monday, shop for food on Wednesday, get more food delivered to Mr. Gill’s workplace on Friday (his boss started their 20- to 100-person tailgating group), and load the food into the van on Friday night. For a 3:30 p.m. kick-off time, they roll into the parking lot at 9 a.m. on Saturday. They wash the dishes on Sunday.

So what makes all the work worth it? “We’ve lost a lot of our socializing opportunities in America,” says ATA’s John Largent. “We used to have more church socials. We used to have less to do. The appeal of tailgating is that it is that last place where you can gather with your friends, coworkers, and college buddies, and reconnect.”