TAMPA — What goes with Dewar's scotch and equally well with Maker's Mark bourbon? Chicken nuggets, evidently. Tailgating, a pastime that has spawned cookbooks, outlandish mobile rigs and a whole lot of competitive zeal, did not reach its culinary effulgence in the parking lot of Raymond James on Monday afternoon before the College Football National Championship.
Fried chicken, chicken nuggets and a flotilla of Chick-fil-A bags — that was a dominant idiom, but I noshed my way through some high points nonetheless.
For Clemson fan Libby Johnson of Hilton Head, S.C., the day started with fried chicken and pulled pork barbecue. First the food, then the drink.
"You get your food on before you get your booze on and then you're smart."
And what did she think Alabama fans were chowing on?
"Crow, we hope."
Nope, nearby Alabama fans Jon and Stephanie Burcham of Lakeland oversaw a big spread: chili in a Crock-Pot, hash brown casserole, sausages on the grill and, according to Jon, "we serve everything with a side of tiger."
There was no shortage of team fealty at the first national championship rematch game in college football history.
"We've easily got at least 25 Clemson graduates here," said Lisa Holland of Fort Mills, S.C. "We always have sausage balls and pudding shots. It's a tradition."
With a deep terror of Jell-O shots, I accepted the pudding version with trepidation. Nothing to fear: chocolate pudding, Bailey's, Kahlua and vodka in a delicate balance, and you got to eat it civilized-like, with a spoon. Luke, her husband, was responsible for the balls — Bisquick, cheddar, and Jimmy Dean hot sausage — another delicious tailgating offering. And for the big game, Luke made an amendment.
"The balls are bigger than usual."
While Jason Boozer rode his electric cooler-cum-scooter, its side festooned with a big orange tiger paw ("It will hold a case of beer, a bag of ice and snacks, and it'll haul"), Susan Eades of Greenville, S.C. spoke a universal truth.
"Everything is better with bacon."
She fed me a crispy bacon-wrapped cracker, salty and sweet with brown sugar, and a bacon-wrapped sausage, both quite solid. And then I moved on to a huge Clemson tailgating tent with more than 100 revelers.
Dan Garrison, also of Greenville, was the host, wearing his lucky socks, orange-bottomed shoes, and there were allusions to special undergarmentry. The must-haves at his shindig included a giant chocolate chip cookie cake with a tiger paw, chicken nuggets (see?) and Heineken beers bought special in Amsterdam and brought back in a carry on. Etched across the bottom of the green glass: "Beat Alabama."
For Randy and Lisa Cable of Charleston, things started out straight-up tailgate fare (beer brats, very solid barbecue wings, bison burgers), but then zigzagged toward froufrou with a side of spinach and artichoke hummus.
"That was against our better judgement," said friend Tony Zambogna from Clemson.
For real froufrou, you needed to duck into the VIP tailgate tent. Kevin Lacassin of Good Food Events + Catering was cooking for 1,100 guests from 3 to 7 p.m. Lacassin declined to say precisely how much they had paid, but he said six figures were involved. And what do VIPs get to eat?
A spin on surf and turf with pan-seared scallops and lamb chops with romesco, mojo glazed two-inch-thick ribeye steaks, whole ahi tuna loins and more. Oh, and those ribeyes, they are sous-vide simmered before they are grilled. I could do fewer chicken nuggets, but tailgating sous vide? That seems like a whole other ballgame.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.