Deep-Fried Turkey, Anyone?

Photo: Dan Forero

For 31 years, the NY Giants have called Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., their home turf.

In all that time, season ticket holder Bill Chapman, 73, has missed only four games.

It's a good thing because Chapman and his sons, Russ and Steve, are the men behind a tailgate party in section 1A of the stadium parking lot that has become as big a draw as the game itself.

A few hours before kickoff at the Giants' home opener against the Indianapolis Colts, the Chapmans' tailgate was in full swing.

Bill and Russ stood behind a long table, serving sliced filet mignon sandwiches with homemade mushroom gravy to nearly 70 friends and relatives.

All around them other fans warmed up for the game, from couples sitting on the tailgates of pickups and SUVs to more elaborate setups involving RVs and televised games projected on huge outdoor screens.

Tailgating turns a parking lot into one big party, and creates an atmosphere so inviting that it's referred to as the "last great American neighborhood." For many fans, like the Chapmans, tailgating has been a game-day ritual for years, and now it seems everyone wants to get in on the fun.

There is a thriving market for items like fold-up grills, and trusted gastronomic sources like the

Food Network and offer tailgating recipes and tips. Even celebrity chefs like Mario Batali are writing entire cookbooks devoted to tailgate cuisine.

A Family Affair

Chapman travels 120 miles to the stadium from his home in south Jersey. On opening day he was set up in the stadium lot by 4 p.m.; the game started at 8, and when it was over, Bill was back at his table, serving cold cuts and beverages. He left the stadium at 1 a.m.

"This is a labor of love," Chapman explains.

In this corner of the parking lot, tradition draws tailgating veterans and newcomers alike.

Years ago, the core of this group included Chapman and some of his buddies from the American Legion Post in Park Ridge, N.J.; today, he is the last remaining member of that group, but he's joined by the children and grandchildren of his old friends.

"Some come and go, but the nucleus is still here," he says. Even his equipment has historical significance. "Some of the utensils I cut with I've had for 31 years. A lot of the stuff is original. The table was donated by the Montvale Fire Department, and the tablecloth we use is 50 years old. It was a wedding gift."

Russ Chapman, 48, recalls attending his first tailgate at age seven, at Yankee Stadium. "Back then it was pretty much beverages, chips and sandwiches," he says. The Chapman menu today is much more elaborate, and even timed to the seasons.

"Starting in November we serve chili, usually made with beef, but on occasion I make it with venison, elk, moose or bison," Chapman continues. "The game closest to Thanksgiving we deep fry turkeys."

The Chapmans' love for tailgating -- and the Giants -- has already trickled down to the next generation.

"My kids Travis and Sabrina are 15 and 12, and they both attended their first tailgate and game at about five years of age," says Russ Chapman.

Team Effort

Legend has it tailgating got its start in 1869, at the first football game between Rutgers and Princeton Universities.

Before the game, college students gathered to eat, drink and show their team spirit, and a tradition was born.

Thankfully, things haven't changed much at Rutgers.

At the September homecoming, students, alumni and fans of the Scarlet Knights crowded campus parking lots at tailgate parties before packing into the stadium to watch the game.

By midmorning, parties were already well under way; the kickoff wasn't until 3:30.

Grills were fired up and beers cracked open, but the scene felt more like a big family reunion than college students gone wild.

The beauty of tailgates is foodwise, anything goes, and this was the case at Rutgers.

A stroll around the parking lot offered glimpses of the staggering variety of food and drink that make this massive cookout so much fun: eggs and bacon frying on one grill, shish kabobs on another, lots of brats (bratwurst, the tailgating classic), 10-foot subs, delicate finger sandwiches, kegs and even a full bar with martini glasses.

Rutgers graduate Peter Haigney, 38, a season ticket holder and tailgating enthusiast, explains the allure.

"People are friendly ... Strangers talk to each other, and if you forget something, someone will always help you," he says. "Plus, now that we're good again, you actually want to see the game."

After more disappointing seasons than most fans care to recall, Rutgers is now nationally ranked for the first time in 30 years.

That makes the tailgating experience sweeter for Peter and his sister Mary Haigney, 43, also a Rutgers graduate and season ticket holder, and their extended group of tailgating friends.

Then again, for them, the trip to the stadium was always about more than just the game.

"Our tailgate started with a few chairs, some sandwiches and beer," she recalls. "It's really grown during the last couple of years."

On their tables lay the proof: penne with vodka, steak, hot wings, hot dogs, fresh mozzarella, potatoes and a variety of beers and soft drinks.

For this group of friends, tailgate planning begins in the weeks before every home game. "Mary and I lug most of the stuff each week -- coolers, chairs, grill -- my car is packed. Plus everybody else brings food and other things like tables and canopies," Peter Haigney says.

"This is a far cry from what we used to do, but it's a lot more fun," Mary Haigney adds.

The Professional

For the Chapmans and the Haigneys, tailgating is an enjoyable diversion. But there's another tailgating aficionado who's taken the party to a new level.

Joe Cahn, 58, is the

Commissioner of Tailgating, and he travels the country to promote what he terms "the biggest weekly party in the nation."

Now in its 11th season, Cahn's annual Tailgating America Tour takes him to 45 stadiums across the country. Traveling in his 40-foot Country Coach equipped with a satellite dish and wide-screen TV, his circuit includes pro and college football games, stock car races and steeplechases.

"A lot of people view tailgating as a bunch of wild, crazy people who cook and get drunk in the parking lot," he explained. "But this is a community, and the demographics are everybody. You'll see three and four generations of families out there, people from all walks of life enjoying and socializing."

A decade ago, Cahn, who owned a cooking school in New Orleans, decided to create a traveling TV show focusing on food. He sold his business, bought a motor home and prepared to hit the road. The Super Bowl was in New Orleans that year, so Cahn began his journey in the Superdome parking lot -- and fell in love with tailgating.

Today, he is entrenched in the tailgating industry and has sponsors, including the

Hearth, Patio and BBQ Association and Stanley Thermos.

When it comes to food, Cahn has no preferences -- he's seen everything and loves to sample it all. His favorites are simple (a good brat), but he's also been treated to some real feasts.

"In New Jersey, I met a group of guys who are some of the best cooks in the world. They make things like pulled pork and smoked duck. Another group had at least 40 different dishes, and they were all incredible. "

The best part, said Cahn, is that all are welcome. "Even those who are not into sports should come to a tailgate. It's the greatest."

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Anne McDarby is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her professional experience includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor in northern New Jersey and more than 15 years in health care public relations and marketing.