Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On Tailgating

There's not many places where you will find so many strangers acting like family, or such massive groups of people cheering for the same cause, or so many good spirits than before a sports event in Wisconsin.

There's also not a lot of places where tailgating has become just as much of a pastime as baseball itself.

Yet every early April, thousands of die-hard, somewhat inebriated fans come to Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI, to cheer for their home team and make the parking lot seem like the worlds largest outdoor kitchen. The techniques may be centuries old, but what is cooked up in this blacktop desert of a ballpark takes imagination and determination to create.

Walking through the chilly asphalt diner, I expected the usual tailgating delights: hot dogs, brats, and burgers. When I strolled by a grill heating up a pot of oil, I did a double take. The potentially explosive combination harbored rolled up treats, bubbling away in the boiling liquid. In the middle of a land ruled by Johnsonville's, I stumbled upon egg rolls. The cook beckoned me to try one.

Taking a bite, the crunchy, outer coating fell away like flaky wrapping paper, revealing tendrils of clear rice noodles and many chunks of cooked pork. Biting through the noodles felt like chewing on squid tentacles, attempting to retreat deeper into the fried treat. With a satisfying tug, the first half of the egg roll was being savored. It was all very Zen.

Waving a thanks, I head out looking for more things strange and delicious.

Such friendliness was found throughout the parking lot, being offered food and beer at almost every one of my stops. Even if it was a hot stew or cold brew, my numb fingers warmed slightly simply out of the kindness I received.

Unfortunately, the same kindness I got from the egg roll man did not pass to the man that was grilling lobster. Such a feast has not graced my dinner table, but here, in an asphalt eatery, people still dine like royalty. A mound of tenderloin, two platters of crustaceans, shrimp and pineapple skewers, and chips with guacamole covered a brown card table.

“They will be grilled to perfection,” the cook said confidently, “after we are done appetizing.” No brats or burgers were going to pass through the kings' lips. No hot dogs will tarnish his table. All he needed was a crown, and I would have bowed as I left his makeshift grand hall.

In the crowded mess of people, relaxation was not on many peoples' priority list, but one surprisingly mellow fellow making a meager T-bone for himself and his buddy made me want to pull up an arm chair, sit with a warm cup of coffee, and talk by a camp fire. Most tailgaters were loud, drunk, and full of energy, this slight man calmly put onions on the grill, next to a pot of baked beans and a sauté pan full of mushrooms.

Stirring the mushrooms delicately, he told me, “It's just me and Dave today.” He spoke slowly and quietly.

Barely audible over the group of overzealous women, he continued to discuss his tailgating habits, and it seemed the noise or company didn't bother him at all. All that mattered was the good food that his wide, flat grill was heating up and the company of his friend. Though certainly not the life of the party, the man, clad in a think, camouflaged coat, was a nice retreat from his high energy surroundings. He could have been sitting in his backyard, relaxing on a warm, supper evening.

A beautifully weaved hunk of meat was being attended to by a few manly men, wearing camouflaged coats and hats, sunglasses, and full, think beards. The meat was clearly a product of a Tyrannosaur and Martha Stewart. Bacon made an intricate pattern over what I could only guess was more meat. The grizzly man explained the inner workings of this marvel of manliness.

“You put a weave of bacon down, then put Italian sausage over it, then cover it with another weave of bacon, wrap it all up, and smoke it for about five hours” he said proudly. It was the pinnacle of carnivorous creations. If you survived the three heart attacks the epic dish would give you, you get bragging rights for life. When I thought it wouldn't get any better, another manly man covered the beastly sausage with Swiss cheese. My heart skipped a beat. Out of pleasure or disgust, I care not.

At this point, nothing should have surprised me. I had seen it all; mountains of meat, lobster, egg rolls, fish fries. And yet, a group was stirring a five gallon pot full of fish, shrimp, potatoes, and seasoning.

“It's a good, old fashioned fish boil,” the man stirring grinned. Shrimp was ready to be grilled and a lone Italian sausage was bubbling away in a thick tomato sauce next to a small pot of melted butter. Even amongst the celebration of a new baseball season, refrained from grilling brats, burgers, steak, or any other form of red meat, and instead chose to dine as an act of piety, as opening day for the Brewers fell on Good Friday.

While others chose to eat fish and other seafood with their steaks or ribs, only this group chose to act so exclusively. After chewing a tender piece of haddock, I could see why: there was no reason for any other food when the rich, buttery stew was both filling and warm, which was perfect on such an unforgiving wind and unreliable sunshine. Religious occasion or not, a fish boil is something to consider when creating a parking lot menu.
The parking lot was full by 11:45 a.m. The game started a little after 3, and countless ticket holders were turned away at the gate. One tailgater said he had been coming to the parking lot for six years, but never entered the park on opening day. Even after the first inning, tailgaters were still grilling strong, listening to their team on the radio while enjoying company and food. For some people, grilling and good times outweighed getting into the game to see the first pitch, or even get into the ballpark.

And throughout the whole day, a sense of camaraderie brought everyone together, even if you didn't know the name of the person you were sharing some beer and brats with. If it was ketchup, burgers, or ales, a fellow fan would gladly share. Unless, of course, you are a Cubs fan.

1 comment:

  1. hey, i resemble that last remark! cubby's for life!

    also, write a book. just let me edit it for you.