Try this. On a crisp Saturday afternoon, head west on I-264. When Norfolk State University comes into view, roll down the car windows. Inhale deeply. If it’s game day for the mighty Spartans, behold the aroma of Tidewater tailgating.
A few years back, in the halcyon days as staff epicure of The Virginian-Pilot, I would cook up all sorts of capers to keep me out of the office and sampling delicious food and drink. Margarita mix testing, an Eastern Shore oyster odyssey, learning to make bone broth from Chef Todd Jurich, or hanging out with Sydney Meers, learning to make fried chicken.
But one of my most brilliant ideas (if I say so myself) was this: Spend fall Saturdays roaming tailgate lots at every Tidewater college and university. I spent the season nibbling crab cakes, sammies, sweets, and shots and along the way collected recipes from Tidewater’s finest tailgaters. I also sampled fare at gatherings of the polo club, the Parrot Head Club, and the Chili Pepper Lovers Club. I even had a NASCAR buddy weigh in.
The result: “Tidewater Tailgate,” my second cookbook.
I got to recalling this recently at an Old Dominion University tailgate. These are some of the most spirited, likely because for nearly seven decades there was no football team. Now every home game, fans arrive four hours before kickoff and serve up everything from oysters to crushes to burgers emblazoned with the university’s logo.
Unfortunately, “Tidewater Tailgate,” like my first cookbook, “Tidewater Table,” is out of print and hard to find. The latter can be found at some local libraries, and both sometimes show up in thrift stores, estate sales, and sometimes on EBay or Amazon. But since I still get many requests for the books, I’m working on a second printing.
Meanwhile, here are a few recipes, just in time for tailgate season.
A few months after this recipe first ran in The Virginian-Pilot, an elderly woman approached me at a festival and confided, “My grandchildren are calling me from college asking me to send them crack!” The recipe comes from Billy Ritter, a former Charlotte resident and no stranger to the NASCAR tailgate scene. It’s best made a day or two ahead of time and unless you want to eat, oh, 100 pretzels or so, don’t even get started. They’re that addictive.
- 2 pounds Rold Gold mini pretzels
- 1 bottle Orville Redenbacher popcorn oil
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dill weed
- 1 package dry ranch dressing mix
Mix the oil, salad, dressing mix, and dill weed together. Put it all in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag. Add the pretzels, shake, and let sit for a few hours. Like fine wine and my best girlfriends, they get better with age.
By the time we spotted these sweet, savory, buttery, and crunchy crackers at William & Mary’s homecoming tailgate, they had all but vanished. But there was no way we would publish this cookbook without the recipe. After weeks of sleuthing, we found Mary Wood, whose husband, Michael, is a graduate. “These are simple to make, but they cook for a long time,” she said. “You need to keep an eye on them, but you know they’re done when the bacon fat melts into the cracker.”
- Keebler Club Crackers
- 1 pound bacon, strips cut into thirds
- Brown sugar, to taste
Preheat oven to 200 degrees (or 225 degrees if your oven won’t set that low).Wrap the center of each cracker with 1/3 slice of bacon. Place on a jelly roll pan. It’s OK if the crackers are touching. Sprinkle with brown sugar.
Bake for about 2 hours. When the Bow Ties are done, the centers of the crackers will be slightly cinched and the sugar slightly caramelized.
We got word about this pie from a long-time Norfolk State University parking attendant with a craving. She pointed across a parking lot to a cluster of tailgaters standing beneath a tree and asked us to please get her a piece of Millionaire Pie. That’s how we met Frankie Williams, mother of an NSU grad, resplendent in a cowboy hat, with no pie in sight. Frankie has learned to hide the pie. Otherwise, poof, they’re gone.
Yield: 2 pies
- 2 graham cracker pie crusts
- 1 14-ounce can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
- 1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
- 1 16-ounce container Cool Whip
- 1 cup crushed pecans
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Shredded coconut
- Maraschino cherries
Blend condensed milk, pineapple, Cool Whip, pecans, and lemon juice. Pour equal amounts into each pie crust. Sprinkle with coconut and dot with cherries. Wrap tightly and chill overnight.
Blue Lot Shots
Back in ‘09, the first fall for Monarch football, The Virginian-Pilot sent three teams of taste testers out to canvas the mosaic of Old Dominion University tailgate lots. Over in the “Blue Lot,” we found Norm Cohn and the Richard Ray Tailgate Team splashing these Blue Lot Shots from a silver martini pitcher. Not a Monarch fan? Just switch food coloring to suit your team’s colors. But remember where they came from!
- 3 parts Cuervo 1800 Tequila
- 1 part peach schnapps
- Drop of blue food coloring
Just mix and shoot. Enjoy!