Even in the best of times, pulling off an epic tailgate ain’t easy. “It’s frankly just a gigantic pain in the ass,” says the Oxford, Mississippi, chef John Currence with a laugh. “You’ve got to drive up, unload stuff, set up under a tent, get rid of the car, go park it—sometimes as far as a mile and a half, two miles away—and then walk back.” Still, tens of thousands of loyal revelers gather in college towns every fall Saturday to partake in what’s become a cherished Southern ritual—at least in a regular season.
This year, fans across the country will adjust their plans for a more socially distant reality, but cheering from the couch instead of the sidelines doesn’t have to eliminate the fun (or the food) of a memorable game day. With Currence’s new book, Tailgreat: How to Crush It at Tailgating, the Big Bad Breakfast chef has assembled a collection of elevated yet approachable recipes that are sure to become traditions—even if their inaugural season on the menu takes place in the front yard instead of the stadium lot. “People are looking for normalcy,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a beacon of hope…We’re calling it ‘home-gating’ now.”
Garden & Gun caught up with Currence about home-gating menus, how to be a perfect game-day guest, and why breakfast food isn’t just for noon kick-offs. Read the interview below, and then sample a few recipes from the book—Easy as Pie Oven BBQ Ribs; Day-Old Croissant and Sausage “Bread Pudding”; or Alabama Firecrackers and Fried Chicken Salad—for a much-needed taste of football season.
When did you start tailgating?
I live here in Oxford, which is considered by lots of folks to be one of the meccas of college football tailgating. But I didn’t know anything about tailgating, for the most part, before I moved here. There was no tailgating scene growing up in New Orleans. There just wasn’t! Food is everywhere, and that’s a complete and total part of the landscape, but tailgating is just a sort of afterthought. You combine that with the fact that Tulane Stadium, where the Saints and Tulane both played, is in the middle of a really residential neighborhood in old Uptown New Orleans…lots of people just had house parties.
Did anything surprise you when you got to the Grove, where the University of Mississippi tailgates, for the first time?
The first time I came here, in the eighties, folks still actually drove their cars up into the Grove. They literally dropped the tailgate and “tailgated” out of their trunks or the backs of their station wagons. At that time, there were still folks that had gloved service…It was really bizarre. They brought out true silver to serve off of, and there were no holds barred. By the time I moved back here in ’92, a decade later, things had changed. Still, people were under these ten-by-ten tents and larger, hanging up working chandeliers—the folks who did it right really went to the mat. But the food just seemed to be, across the board, the part that had been basically surrendered to pick-up and order-in stuff.
Tailgreat offers a solution to that—easy homemade recipes that elevate the spread. Beyond the dishes, do you have any essentials for a great day of tailgating?
It’s first and foremost about selecting the right people to do it with. There is so much work involved: You can pick somebody who you’re incredibly good friends with, but if they don’t share the same work ethic, it’s very easy for that balance of labor to really swing feelings. No matter how much money people throw at it, there’s still work to do. You’ve got some folks who just want to go to the party. They don’t even think about what’s involved. With the wrong people, one or two couples end up carrying all the weight, and it can really chafe.
Is there any recipe in this book that stands out as meaning something special to you?
All these things have different stories that go along with them. One of my favorites is this chaat: When Vish [Bhatt] and I went to India about four years ago, we got up the first morning and there was a guy tossing together mashed fried chickpeas with onions and chiles and chaat masala, just rolling up newspaper cones and dumping this little snack into it. It was one of the most incredible bites I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve got a version of that with oyster crackers in the book that I love. I also really like this totally cheating version of ribs. You do them oven-baked, but they’re barbecue ribs. That was such a huge thing that my mom used to do when we were little: chicken baked in the oven that she just drowned in barbecue sauce. But it was barbecue chicken! It had all the flavors except for smoke. These recipes are all designed to be easy.
These may be easy recipes, but you take the time for some tasty details—for example, the kicked up “firecrackers” to go with your fried chicken salad. Did that come from something you ate growing up, too?
No—those totally came to me at a party. It was a super fancy, dressed-up cocktail party, and a friend of mine’s big sister showed up with a sack full of these crackers. And I was like, this is so awesome that we’re in the middle of this lavish spread—with silver service—and all of a sudden there’s Alabama firecrackers in a Ziploc bag. I just sat there and scarfed them down as fast as I could.
You’re certainly an expert on breakfasts—you’ve got Big Bad Breakfasts popping up all over the South, and Tailgreat recipes like the Day-Old Croissant and Sausage Bread Pudding help you take those tastes to an early game. What makes breakfast food special, especially for a tailgating spread?
The thing that I love about breakfast is that it’s the happiest meal of the day. Everybody’s always happy at breakfast—it appeals to your inner seven-year-old. I love it. I mean, we’re sitting at Big Bad Breakfast right now, as we speak, and my wife is like, man, I’m totally gonna have a pancake. It brings out that kid part of you, the happy memories, the ultimate trigger. Nobody ever broke up with their boyfriend at breakfast! Nobody ever gets fired at breakfast. And then you throw a couple drinks into it…there’s nothing in the world more sinister than going out at nine in the morning to get breakfast and having a Bloody Mary. You just know the day’s over, and it’s going to be the greatest day ever.