Tailgating, Chicago-style: Weather never stops diehard fans of asphalt dining
By Janet Rausa Fuller
September 13, 2000
Three hours and 45 minutes before the start of the Northwestern football season, and not a second too soon, Lake View resident Tom Cooney works the rub onto four perfect pork roasts and eases them into the smoker.
The meat, 12 pounds in all, won’t be ready until the fourth quarter rolls around, which one would assume makes it the main course.
Until you factor in the 16 pounds of skirt steak, 5 pounds of grilled shrimp, 10 pounds of Italian sausage and a whole mess of homegrown peppers and onions that will be eaten before the pork is even halfway to medium rare.
Welcome to the wonderful world of tailgating.
This, in particular, is the world of the Cooneys — brothers Tom, 48, and Gene, 39, and cousin Mike, 39 — and their extended family of friends, many of whom grew up together on the North Side.
In 1990, four of them bought Northwestern season tickets. It was the pre-Rose Bowl era. The team was awful. Someone forgot to bring utensils for the cookout.
The team isn’t so awful now, but this group of tailgaters — which fluctuates between 10 and 25 people, depending on the game — has never failed to gather before each game for food, drinks and laughs.
This game, the season opener against Northern Illinois, falls on a sunny, humid Thursday. There is hardly a breeze. Of course, as any tailgater will tell you, the weather is merely a small piece of the whole.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. By 3:01, after the parking lot opens, the grills and coolers already are on the concrete. “To me, it’s not just a game, it’s an event,” said construction worker Tony Bullaro, sipping a beer in the shade of a white canopy.
Which brings us to Tailgating Truth No. 1: To weed out fair weather fans from a team’s true groupies, one need not look much farther than the parking lot.
Who else would get up at the crack of dawn on a weekend or skip out early from work during the week to brave subzero wind chills, sleeting rain and miserable heat for something grilled to eat and cold to drink?
“There’s probably a high correlation between diehard tailgaters and diehard fans,” said Luke Lincoln, co-founder of the American Tailgater Co., a Chicago-based catalog company. “It’s such an integral part of the game day experience now.”
Lincoln, 31, and his 41-year-old brother, Mike, both graduates of Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, dreamed up the idea for their company, which tests and sells tailgating products, while tailgating. They expanded onto the Internet (www.americantailgater.com) with a link to the Tailgater, a monthly Webzine featuring recipes and fan message boards, the editors of which met the Lincolns while tailgating.
Which brings us to Tailgating Truth No. 2: Tailgating fosters camaraderie and, in some cases, golden business ideas.
Indeed, the ritual for many fans is to gather both before and after the game. Regulars say it helps ease traffic flow. And who could argue with a few extra hours of hanging out with friends?
“There are so many prime returners, and they thrive on it,” said Marcia Buchs, marketing coordinator for the Chicago Bears, who is in charge of Bears-sponsored tailgate parties at Soldier Field. “I have people who beat me in line before I even get to the field, and I have to be there 3 1/2 hours early.
“I know probably the first 100 people who drive in by name. It’s Dale and Marie, then it’s Sue, then Joe. It’s kind of like the people you work with. Everyone arrives in the same format.”
Back at Ryan Field, Gene Cooney surveys the scene. “Tailgating is like going camping for a day,” said Cooney, a broker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. “It’s a living room, that piece of pavement. You set up chairs, make it as comfortable as possible. You’ve got to be as hospitable as possible.”
Cooney, his relatives, Tom and Mike, and his good friend, Tom Lauletta, are the main force behind each tailgate. Lauletta, 39, a big guy with a big laugh, is known as “The Sergeant” because he delegates who brings what.
Cooney always brings his “Merminated Skirt Steaks,” sliced thin and marinated overnight in a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, garlic, tequila and a few other ingredients. He got the recipe years ago from a friend who couldn’t pronounce the word “marinated.”
His cousin, Mike, brings the rest of the meat, including a long coil of hot Italian sausages. Michael Farella buys crusty hard rolls by the bagful.
John Gschwind brings his trademark “All Day Potatoes,” essentially potato gratin on steroids. Gschwind lines the bottom of a large foil roasting pan with strips of bacon, then layers on sliced potatoes, onions, smoked sausage, spices and pats of butter.
Which brings us to Tailgating Truth No. 3: A tailgate without good food, and lots of it, is pointless.
“Too much food is key,” says lawyer Julie Workman, 25, an avid Bears tailgater with husband, Jamie. “Running out is a big mistake. Sometimes what you’ll see happen is people trading food with the people next to them.”
A food shortage is highly unlikely with Cooney’s group. By 6 p.m., the grilled shrimp and “merminated” steak are gone. Next up are Italian sausages.
To pass time, some guys play cards. Others sit back and shoot the breeze. The sizzle of the grill works its magic, drawing a few stragglers like Doug Winter to the canopy.
“These guys have made tailgating an art form,” said Winter, whose family has had season tickets for 52 years. He isn’t part of the group, but he’s no stranger. He met them tailgating and looks for them now before games.
When the sausages are ready, Winter falls in line. Grab a roll, then a link. Top with peppers and onions. Like clockwork.
Later, the “All Day Potatoes” take their place on the grate. These will cook during the game. A few guys stay behind to watch the food and equipment.
The Wildcats win 35-17. Even later, the pork roast emerges from the smoker, dripping with juice, as expected. With the potatoes and whatever drinks are left in the coolers, dinner is served.
The season’s looking good already.