Despite what those south of the cheese-curtain would have you believe, the perfect tailgate starts long before you pull into the lot at Lambeau Field or Miller Park. Much like the assembly of an IKEA end table (that your other half just “had to have” even though there was nothing wrong with the old end table and now you need to find a place for it in the basement because you never know when it might be useful) it requires careful planning and many medicinal strength beverages. Similarly, the best way to approach your next tailgate is with these crucial step-by-step instructions.
Step 1: Assembling the Team
Just as the head coach of your beloved sports team will choose his starters a few days beforehand, so should you. There’s no room for sentimentality here. Keep that for baptisms and funerals. This is serious, and tasks should be designated according to each person’s strengths.
You need a driver, and their appointment should be based on the size of their vehicle and any current medical condition that prevents them from drinking. If they choose to remain sober for any reason not suggested by a physician, then leave them at home. They are not your people.
Food. Food is meat … and meat that can be eaten without utensils or plates. For this, I suggest sourcing a Polish friend as they will likely have been schooled in the preparation of tubular meat packages from a young age. If you’re unsure, then check your phone contacts for names ending in “ski” or people whose grandparents talk funny. If you don’t have a Polish friend, then ask a German to step in. You will most likely have a German friend that you’ve already tasked with beer procurement. Historically they are more than happy to take over the territory.
“What about vegetarian options?” I hear you ask. Well, the native Wisconsin population died out during the great cheddar famine of 1903, so if someone asks you for a salad, then you can assume they are a spy. Cast them out and let their carcass be a warning to others.
With a driver, a cook, and beer supplier squared away you have your minimum bases covered. Any others that tag along are a bonus really, but you will want to prioritize one of them. Do you have an attractive friend who wishes they were taken seriously? This is a time for them to prove they are more than just a pretty face. I have labeled them “The fishermen”: A man or woman of sufficient aesthetic or character to borrow items you’ve forgotten. When the grill is all set up, but you forgot the charcoal then a good fisherman can be sent amongst the huddled masses and return with a bag of charcoal, three phone numbers, a solo cup of trash can punch and a whimsical hat within fifteen minutes.
Step 2: Attire
If you’re a first-timer, I would suggest keeping your options open and taking everything from sunscreen to hand warmers. Wisconsin has seen snowfall during every month of the year except July, and it is quite possible all four seasons will be experienced during a single day. If it starts raining during the journey then you can stop for cheap ponchos at any number of Kwik Trips or Piggly Wigglys along the way—but be careful of the colors. I am reminded of the fabled rain-soaked Thanksgiving of 2015 when one poor fellow made the error of buying a purple poncho from a gas station in Sheboygan. He was still wearing that purple poncho when Brett Favre strutted out onto Lambeau field at halftime. That purple poncho remains part of the official description of this missing person today.
Your sports team, like most tribes, have specific colors and ranks. If you don’t have clothing specific to the team you’re supporting, then you can always go with blaze orange and/or camouflage. While this may be viewed as unnecessary in Minnesota where lesser mortals choose to play sports indoors, we know how Wisconsin’s climate ruthlessly eliminates the incapable. When people get too old to play here, they can be sent to Minnesota or New York and claimed as “charitable contributions” for that year’s taxes.
Bring extra overalls or snow pants for any ladies in the group. Depending on how cold the winter has been they may need to size up. Approach this delicately. You only brought the extra pants by accident.
Do not go topless/naked/nearly naked. If this is your first time, then you are yet to earn the right to be so brazenly stupid. Those painted torsos staggering majestically around the parking lot like great beasts of the Serengeti, are the kings of the tailgate. Monarchs of all they survey. In a world where GPAs and 401k plans are seen as important, it is during those frigid moments that these others stand tall. They likely have a monosyllabic name like Dave, Bob or Sue, and a belly like a broad canvas. When they line up and spell/try to spell a word, they become something far greater than the sum of their parts. Kneel. You are not yet worthy.
Step 3: Supplies
You have delegated the major tasks to your two favorite stereotypes of European heritage. They won’t let you down, but you need some backup options and alternatives in case you make new friends. In Wisconsin, this is known as socializing, and without sufficient food and drink it simply will not happen. Pick up a platter of cheese and meat from any local grocery. It fits easily under most vehicle seats and can be passed around while the grill is heating up. This should not be confused with the act of leaving decorative cheese wheels on young lady’s windowsills, which is an ancient mating ritual still popular north of Stevens Point. Take some venison and salmon from the freezer and stow it away in one of the coolers, just in case. If you don’t have these items readily available, then seek help from the nearest adult.
Beer should be plentiful, enough to sedate a mammoth, and brewed ONLY in the great state of Wisconsin. Whatever the German gets, double down with a heady blend of New Glarus, Leinenkugel’s, Pabst, Schlitz or Miller. Beer from neighboring states is of inferior quality and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. We have standards. Cocktails must be available (especially at breakfast) so be sure to bring the liquor and accouterments for your favorite Brandy old fashioned. An elaborate Bloody Mary bar isn’t always required, but it’s definitely encouraged. Pay special attention to the trimmings. If you’re putting more on your brat than on your bloody, then you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t Chicago. Acceptable condiments for meat are mustard or mustard … or ketchup for anyone unable to tie their own shoelaces, and by mustard, I mean REAL mustard. Not rosemary infused maple glaze made with the finest unicorn tears and duck saliva. Take your neck beard, positive mental attitude, Sanskrit tattoo and ironic plaid shirt back to the wine bar Kenneth!
Ice. Even if its twenty below you still need ice.
You should have a fine selection of grilling tools available in an old tackle or tool box. While grilling tools are great conversation starters and acquire their own flavor over time, newcomers can survive with tongs and a knife. If you think this will leave you underprepared, then get a bigger knife.
Step 4: Game Day
You’ve made it. I would like to say that already I am incredibly proud of you. You’ve become part of the wonderful tailgating tradition that goes back centuries. It has been written that when the Europeans first reached Wisconsin, they were greeted by natives tailgating the Milwaukee River. Just like those brave frontiersmen you deserve a treat having made it this far. Something like a congratulatory slap on the buttocks that only a smirking gym teacher can provide but with a little less squeezing. On the big day give yourself a shower beer. If you haven’t enjoyed this before I promise you that it will change your life. It is the best thing you can do in the shower that doesn’t need to be repeated at confession. Keep the feeling going with a few warm-up drinks before hitting the road and if you feel yourself getting tight on the journey then stop for a few more. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
As soon as the vehicle is parked have another drink to reward yourself for reaching the destination a good 5 hours early despite the traffic. Start the grill as soon as possible and put on your happy face. Maybe your new neighbors would like a drink? Maybe they’d like to see who can drink it quickest? Pull the team together and get a race going but always be polite and insist on the contest being best of five.
You may need to send your fisherman out to find some mustard because one of you was so overcome with excitement that they painted “Go Pack Go” on their belly with mustard and pickle slices. You may indulge so much that you miss the game entirely or remember only snippets from that day. Either way, it will be an experience that lingers long in the liver if not in the memory.
Tailgate Wisconsinbly my friends.