There's tailgating. And then there's tailgating.
"When I was at University of Florida, there were people who got there at 2:30 in the morning cooking a whole pig on a spit," says Taylor Mathis, author of "The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South" (University of North Carolina Press). "It's great to see that kind of dedication, to get there 17 hours before kickoff."
Mathis saw dedication writ large during his gridiron-infused culinary tour of 35 college stadiums — from a Halloween game at the University of Kentucky with mummy-shaped apple slices floating in cider, to a University of Washington crowd hosting a Midwestern fish fry with Great Lakes fish sent by their University of Michigan pals.
"One of my favorite things was seeing how creative people could get with themes," says the 28-year-old University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate.
Mathis devoted a chapter of his book to an "eat your competition" theme. (Beer can chicken when your rivals are birds; a mutton dish when Rams are the opposition; souped up hot dogs when you're facing a team of Bulldogs.)
"Take the disdain you feel toward the competition and channel it into a delicious and creative meal that will inspire your fellow fans and intimidate the opposition," he writes.
Some teams require more creativity than others.
"You're not going to eat tiger, obviously," he told us. "But you could make a red cocktail and call it tiger's blood."
Regardless of your theme — or the number of tailgates under your belt — let the food take center stage, he suggests.
"Go for quality over quantity," Mathis says. "Pick one or two great dishes and do them well."
Because once you walk into that stadium, greatness is up for grabs.
"You can't control how your team performs on the field," he says. "All you can do is throw the best pregame celebration possible."
Here are recipes to get your season started.
Chicken-sweet potato kebabs
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 12-15 minutes
Makes: 12 kebabs
Note: Adapted from "The Southern Tailgating Cookbook" (University of North Carolina Press, $30), by Taylor Mathis.
2 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: coarse ground black pepper, ground sage
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size cubes
1 each: red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, orange bell pepper
1 medium yellow onion
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into bite-size pieces, parboiled, cooled
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon each: salt, Dijon mustard, coarse ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1. For the chicken, whisk the vinegar, Worcestershire, mustard, salt, pepper and sage together in a bowl. Continue whisking while slowly pouring in the olive oil. Add chicken to a large zip-close plastic bag; pour in the marinade. Seal; refrigerate overnight.
2. For the vegetables, chop the peppers and onion into bite-size pieces. Add to a large zip-close plastic bag along with the sweet potatoes. Whisk the vinegar, salt, mustard and pepper together in a bowl. Continue whisking while drizzling in the olive oil. Pour over the vegetables. Seal; refrigerate overnight.
3. The next day, assemble the kebabs at home. (Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes before using.) Alternate pieces of chicken, vegetables and sweet potatoes on 12 skewers. (Discard marinade.) Transfer the skewers in covered containers to your tailgate event.
4. Grill over medium-high heat, turning once, until the vegetables are softened and the chicken is cooked, 12-15 minutes.
Per serving: 156 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 42 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 87 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Poblano stuffed with chorizo, shrimp and rice
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 12 large peppers or about 50 small peppers
Notes: Adapted from a recipe from Guy Fieri's show "Guy's Big Bite" on the Food Network. We used mini sweet peppers, yielding appetizer-size bites for a crowd. Also, Fieri calls for lopping off the tops to stuff the peppers. We slit them along one side for easier stuffing and grilling.
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound Mexican-style chorizo, casings removed
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, minced
1 red onion, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup short-grain rice
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup each: white wine, water
12 large poblano chili peppers or about 50 small sweet peppers
1 pound cooked shelled shrimp, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 cup each, shredded: cheddar, Jack cheese
1. Heat oil and chorizo in a saucepan over medium-high heat; cook, 3 minutes. Add chopped peppers, jalapeno, onion and garlic; cook until softened. Add rice; cook, stirring to coat the rice with oil. Stir in the chicken stock, wine and water; heat to a boil. Cover; reduce heat. Simmer, 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place poblanos on a rimmed baking sheet; bake in 400 degree oven, 15 minutes. Allow to cool. Once cool, cut top off of the peppers or slit them down one side; remove ribs and seeds.
3. When rice is done, fluff with a fork; stir in shrimp. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Stuff chilies with the rice mixture. Pack in covered containers.
4. On site, sprinkle exposed stuffing with the cheeses. Grill peppers over medium heat until heated through and cheese melts.
Per serving (for 12 servings): 156 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 42 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 87 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.