SEC tailgating a fine art

Football is not just football.

Football is loyalty, football is family, and, in the SEC, football is a form of outdoor, Pentecostal worship.

But for many fans, the high point of game day is the extended parking-lot picnic that takes place before (and sometimes after) any of the action on the field. Football is food. And when the University of Georgia plays the University of Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship, there will be food.

The game begins at 4 p.m. and will be telecast on CBS, but many fans will arrive for breakfast. Among the champion tailgaters who will be attending Saturday’s gridiron conflict will be Jason Weathers, a 1997 UGA graduate, who majored in philosophy, and who has applied deep thought to the issue of food and symbolism.

“I have a philosophy I like to practice that’s called ‘feasting on the flesh of the enemy,’ ” said Weathers, 41. “We tailgate on a theme. If we’re playing South Carolina, we’ll be grilling some chicken.” Take that, Gamecocks.

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“If it’s Mississippi State, it’s dog-eat-dog, so we’ll be eating hot dogs.”

The University of Alabama presents some challenges, thematically speaking, since eating elephants, even red ones, is frowned upon. To symbolically consume this opponent, Weathers thinks something suggesting a crimson tide — pomegranates, cranberries, maybe even beets — would be appropriate.

He might get some ideas from a new book published by Southern Living called “The Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook.” In the introduction, Sports Illustrated scribe Lars Anderson writes that SEC tailgating is beyond over the top. At Auburn’s home games, he notes, RVs waving Tiger flags start arriving on Tuesday afternoons, more than 100 hours early, and Knoxville’s fans will tie up a “flotilla” of boats on the Tennessee River, just outside Neyland Stadium, where the tailgating continues late into the evening.

In other conferences, “I don’t think they have the same pomp and circumstance,” said Rebecca Gordon, Southern Living’s test kitchen director. “In the South, we really embrace a family reunion-type atmosphere.”

One way for Bulldog fans to express themselves through food is Southern Living’s “sweet heat hot dogs,” featuring Asian Sriracha sauce and sweet-hot pickles.

Among the Alabama-themed recipes in the new cookbook is a sausage-and-egg tortilla they call a “Roll Tide Breakfast Roll,” which would be an appropriate way for early arrivals to start the day. Just such an early bird is UGA season ticket holder Ed Lake, who likes to arrive on game day at 7 a.m., when most parking lots around Sanford Stadium open up.

(Lake doesn’t know where he’ll be parking for Saturday’s game, at the Georgia Dome, but wherever it is, he’ll be cooking.)

During a long, 11-year exile in the state of Ohio, Lake and his wife, Linda, had to get a head start to arrive at the 7 a.m. hour, driving down from Dayton in their conversion van (license tag: UGAVAN) at the beginning of the season and taking enough vacation to catch two consecutive home games.

Things are easier since they moved back south to Augusta, where they simply arise at 4 a.m. on game day, which gives them plenty of time to stake out their spot when the gates open. There they set up their propane-powered portable heaters, their collapsible picnic tables and their boombox, and greet friends whom they see at every game. Their dog-themed knickknacks include a bulldog figurine in a chef’s toque, holding a blackboard that has the menu for the day written in chalk.

Lake, 58, is retired from pharmaceuticals sales, and he is the incoming president of the Augusta Bulldog Club. His two children, who went to pharmacy school at UGA, bring their spouses on game day, and one day Lake hopes to have three generations of dog fans tailgating together.

And there you have the essence of tailgating. It is the part of the day when fans focus on one another.

“It’s the camaraderie of getting a lot of friends together,” said Weathers, a distributor of computer parts who lives in Greenville, S.C. “We don’t necessarily sit together in the stadium, and for some of our friends, this is one of the few times we get to see them all year. … It’s like a mini-holiday, six or seven times a year.”

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