Picking the top 10 NFL tailgating scenes is hard. Even if you’re in just one small section of a huge parking lot where the guys cook ribs like pros, your tailgating experience might combine enough fun and flavor to impress even the Commissioner of Tailgating, Joe Cahn.
In 1996, Cahn sold his New Orleans cooking school, bought a motor home, and went tailgating at every stadium in the NFL that season. He has since been to 500 NFL tailgates and logged 500,000 miles.
“Tailgating is the only gathering place of a community of its kind, like walking through thousands of backyards. It’s where the happy people are,” Cahn says. “Tailgating creates the perfect American neighborhood.” Having spent 13 NFL seasons on the road, Commissioner Cahn knows firsthand what’s necessary to create a fantastic tailgating scene.
“Parking space, tradition, and family are three of the top four ingredients,” Cahn says. “The first two are obvious. Family is a lot else — especially for kids, because sports is the only thing where a kid can argue toe-to-toe with an adult and get away with it.”
The fourth main ingredient is great food. Cahn can rattle off a list of magnificent dishes he’s had across the country — bratwursts, chili, gumbo, homemade tomales, and Maine lobster — and remember the place where he ate each one. “It’s an honor to be invited into someone’s home to eat, and the tailgate is the home brought to the parking lot,” he says.
The list of stadiums here focuses on tailgating scenes that each offer a certain superlative something that you can find only at this location, and which makes it stand out in the NFL. In some cases that’s food. In other cases, it’s a unique fan factor or level of accessibility, or a combination of these things.
Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City has long been a standout because it is the barbecue capital of America, August to December. To have eaten ribs or chops here is to have participated in a great time in American culinary history.
But the one place that could give Arrowhead’s chefs a run for their money are the grill-masters down at Reliant Stadium, in Houston, where the Texas-style barbecue rules. Two other food hotspots — Miami’s Land Shark Stadium, for Cuban-influenced cuisine, and Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro, Mass., for fresh seafood — are must-go-and-eats.
Fan intensity is another major factor in picking these tailgating scenes. For that, look to Lembeau Field, in Green Bay, where one of the great civic migrations of this country occurs, as nearly all the citizens of Green Bay get as close to Lembeau Field as they can or simply tailgate in their front yards in the communities nearby. Then there’s the Raider Nation, at the Oakland Coliseum, a sea of humanity including the fantastically costumed denizens of the end-zone-seated "Black Hole." The fan intensity also runs high for the crowd in the parking lot at Lincoln Financial Field, in Philly.
“The Eagles fans’ passion always impresses me,” Cahn says. “They might be the fans who are most knowledgeable about their team.”
Cahn long ago gave up cooking his usual jambalaya at his tailgates so he could instead rove the parking lots, meet the fans, collect recipes and swap stories. Every city is his hometown when he’s there, he says, and he has a jersey for every team. On top of everything else — food, family, tradition — Cahn exhorts tailgaters to rove through the “neighborhoods.”
“At one of your hometown games, just do appetizers, and then take the camera and walk around,” he says. “Go see other people. Go see other food. There could be someone you haven’t seen in years just two rows over, but if you don’t leave your tailgate you’ll never find them. Just walk around one game a year and you’ll come away with enough great food ideas for the rest of your life as a fan.”