From Tailgate to Tail-GREAT

Posted On September 10, 2018

It's all about the pre-game festivities and food that revolves around tailgating.

By Clair DeLune

Whether you shake a tail feather for the Fighting Gamecocks or have a Clemson Tiger tail tied to your antenna, there is a phenomenon that shapes South Carolina’s sporting culture each autumn. Oh, yeah… football, to be sure; but at this magazine - and in the parking lots surrounding stadiums - it's all about the pre-game festivities and food that revolves around tailgating.

For you newbies to the phenomenon, tailgating got its name eons ago when station wagons were the SUVs of the day and long-time fans with near-stadium parking backed their wagons onto the lot and set up picnics on the actual tailgate of the automobile.

As they say: “Times have changed” and, while we are sports fans, what we do best at Columbia Living is inspire our readers with food stories – so this is about modern-day tailgating from the sublime to the supine; from the elite, to those who compete; but we won’t forget those who prefer what’s easy, breezy and ready to eat!

In this issue we will cover the best tailgaters – those with something to crow or roar about – as well as you who don’t aspire to reach the pinnacle of picnic production and prefer to “swing and bring” – choosing foods others have labored over so you can reap the benefits of their tasty craft. Whichever solution suits you best, we’ve got your tail(gate) covered.

Meet the Cockabooses:

What once brought up the rear on a working train is now top of the line in pre- and post-game entertaining.

Unique to the University of South Carolina, Cockabooses emerged on the scene when cabooses became plentiful on the open market after they were no longer required to be the last car on a freight or passenger train. Revamped and upscale, refurbished and cleverly named Cockabooses are owned by individuals and fan conglomerates as a way to enjoy tailgating with a degree of upscale comfort.

“As you know, a Gamecock football game is more than a three-hour game – it is an all-day party,” said Eric Nichols, senior associate athletics director at USC. “Tailgating, to some, is the most important aspect of that party as it gives fans a chance to show off their personality and hospitality as they connect with friends and family before a game. That common bond amongst the Carolina fan base is what has led to the most loyal fans in the land.”

Raj Vasudeva, M.D., and his wife Bhavna, moved to Columbia from Pennsylvania when he joined the faculty at the USC Medical School in Columbia 30 years ago. Bhavna Vasudeva reminisced about the changes in her perception of the event over the past 26 years of owning a share in a Cockaboose.

“We had some friends who were selling shares in their Cockaboose,” she said. “They offered us a partnership, but we didn't understand at all about the concept of tailgating. However, upon attending one tailgate party in a Cockaboose, we got it - recreational drinking and partying! So we thought ‘we can handle this!’”

Now they are full-on fans.

The Vasudevas formed an LLC of members who share one Cockaboose and each co-owner chooses a home game each season to serve as host. They share hospitality for communal events on the remaining games. The Vasudevas decorate with centerpieces and serve fine wines as well as the best in decadently delicious foods. Her favorite memory was during a day game tailgate that kicked off in the morning with a breakfast of spicy Carolina shrimp and local grits paired with a brightly sparkling champagne Mimosa. Vasudeva credits her success to the catering of Louise Reed, of the renowned Mill Pond in Camden, along with a professional bartender.

“It makes it easy, elegant and enjoyable for everyone.”

Amateur chefs with professional output

Rocking the tarmac are many amateur chefs. Whether self-trained or formally schooled, there is no shortage of local food wizards. Two we spoke to are Jennifer Skoy and Blake Wingard.

Skoy prepares food for dozens of friends who sign up on her Facebook invitation before each home game. She attributes her popularity to her “Jell-O Shot of the Week,” but one glance at her menu shows the real reason more people clamor for her sumptuous fare each week than she can accommodate.

Jell-O Shot of the Week

Mini Italian Skewers

Buffalo Ranch Snack Mix

Cheese and Crackers

Chicken Chili

Taco Dip

Veggie Pizza

Artichoke Parmesan Bites

Glazed Kielbasa Bites

Buffalo Chicken Meatballs

Sundried Tomato and Basil Pinwheels

Sugar Cookie Bars

When it comes to high-end food cooked on a grill in a crowded parking lot, Wingard calls upon his restaurant experience to please his crowd. Although he says he is not classically trained, he has had the benefit of years of experience working alongside very talented and classically-trained chefs, and it shows.

“My favorite recipe would probably be Frenched rack of lamb with tzatziki sauce or mint jelly,” he said. “It's easy and full of flavor and each piece comes with its own little handle for easy eating while you're consuming beverages.”

For those who cannot, will not, or do not cook – remember, we do food features, but we don’t judge – we’ve included a map of restaurants that you can swing through and bring their food. We thought genuine South Carolina barbecue would be just the “ticket.” Fried chicken, BBQ, beans, slaw, other sides and buns, and enough swee’tea to wash it all down. Bonus: packed up and ready to haul when you get there if you call ahead. We’re calling it BBQ NEWS, but the letters stand for North, East, West and South, so from whence you hail, you have food without fail.

And again, yes, there is an actual sports event going on as well, but life in Carolina is most often about food and friendships.

“My husband gets so excited when football season nears that he can't sleep – we have completely embraced the culture,” Bhavna Vasudeva said. “The relationship with these friends has made it culturally transformative.”

When asked why he goes to the trouble to entertain outdoors on a parking lot, Blake Wingard justifies all his hard work and expense: “It is a wonderful feeling seeing people smile while they eat your food. They might just be hammered drunk and hungry but I'm pretty sure it's the quality of ingredients and the effort put into the dish that makes them smile.”

“Swing and Bring”

N = Little Pigs offers a wide variety of styles of barbecue, including brisket and Memphis-style ribs, along with the usual pulled pork and sides that make a visit to them a delight. Find them on your way in from the Northeast side of town on Alpine Road and I-20. http://littlepigs.biz; 803-788-8238

E = Big T’s is pit-cooked, sit-up-all-night, old school barbecue from a family who has been doing it the old-fashioned Carolina way since too far back to count. They are National Heritage Fellow honoree Drink Small’s favorite BBQ joint, and believe us, a Bluesman knows his BBQ. Tucked in a shopping center across Garners Ferry (US 378) from the Wal-Mart if you are coming from the East, find them at: 7535 Garners Ferry Rd Ste C, Columbia; 803-776-7132; www.facebook.com/Big-Ts-BBQ-238454016551/

W = Everything at Farm Boys off I-26 near Chapin and Little Mountain is fresh and delicious, but they have found a trick to take the bitterness out of collards without making them sweet. One of the many reasons this writer makes up reasons to drive to Chapin to shop and stop for BBQ every few months. Worth going out of your way for. 1250 Chapin Rd, Chapin, SC 29036; 803-345-7600; www.farmboysbbq.com

S = Shealy’s is one of the longest-running restaurants in the state, celebrating half-a-century next year. Their barbecue is nothing short of phenomenal and a part of our cultural experience. The first barbecue I ever ate was at Shealy’s after moving here from Washington D.C. and it made me a lifetime fan. If you are coming from the Southwest – up from Augusta or Aiken – veer off slightly toward Batesburg-Leesville and reap the benefits. 340 E Columbia Ave, Batesburg-Leesville, SC 29070; 803-532-8135; www.shealysbbq.com