Tailgating for the love of food and football

Are you ready for some football? Or at least, some Pittsburgh-style tailgating?

The Steelers kick off their regular season tonight at Heinz Field against the Tennessee Titans, and the first of eight giant -- make that humongous -- community parties unfolds in the stadium parking lots.

Long before kickoff, the intoxicating aroma of kielbasa and onions and burgers on the grill will perfume the afternoon air, driving the poor souls who are merely attending the game instead of tailgating before it into a hunger craze. Many tailgaters will set out gourmet buffets, sating those pre-game munchies with a delicious smorgasbord of hot and spicy (barbecued ribs and wings), sweet (brownies and cookies), tangy (sweet-and-sour meatballs) and just plain yummy (is there anything better than a brat on a roll with grilled Vidalias and peppers?)

Seriously, man, don't you feel like sharing?

Football fans have been tailgating for as long as there have been parking lots outside stadiums and television sets in living rooms. In Pittsburgh, though, the tradition is practically an art form . . . if not a religion.

Dave and Robin Hall of Franklin, Venango County, were among the thousands who piled into Gold Lot 2 as soon as the gates opened prior to the Buffalo Bills game on Aug. 29. Dave has been tailgating before Steelers games since, well, "since Jack Lambert was a linebacker."

Their son David, a sales executive with FedEx, and future daughter-in-law, Sarah Johnson, are equally passionate about the pre-game food fest, which is hardly a casual affair. The family typically arrives at least four hours before the coin toss, in every kind of weather. Cooking always starts early -- sometimes the night before.

"It's all about having fun," said Dave Sr., an electrician with Joy Mining. "You work all week so this is time to kick back and relax."

Preseason tailgates are usually a little less elaborate than those in October or November; like the Steelers themselves, they pick up steam as the season rolls by. But the couple's Toyota 4Runner still was loaded with an impressive array of good eats: big bowls of creamy Buffalo chicken dip, water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, and Robin's famous black-and-gold 'Burgh Brownies. Son David, meanwhile, warmed his famous Hash Brown Potato Skins and Sarah's Sausage-stuffed Anaheim Peppers on a small Coleman propane grill they ferried to the parking lot in the back of his Toyota Tacoma.

"It's the best food in Pittsburgh," David bragged.

Robert Capwell of Moon, chief knowledge officer for Employment Background Investigations, might beg to differ. His tailgate just a few rows away centered around a portable deep fryer. First came a big batch of his special hot wings, which he described as a cross between hot, Cajun and BBQ. The exact recipe is proprietary, but he was willing to hint at the ingredients.

"A little Frank's Redhot, some vinegar, a couple tablespoons of barbecue sauce ..." His voice trailed off with a smile.

That was followed by pre-seasoned frozen potatoes fried good and crisp.

As rabid about Penn State as he is the Steelers, Mr. Capwell during the regular season has been known to bring a smoker to tailgates, as well as cook seafood or plan theme parties.

"If you're gonna be here and enjoy the crowd," he explained, "you might as well do your favorite foods and recipes."

Sue and George Viglione of Monroeville, who own a silkscreen design company called Artex Designs, are others among the sea of black-and-gold partiers who don't hesitate to haul special equipment to Heinz Field; their well-oiled tailgate machine during the regular season includes a hardwood rotisserie on which they cook prime rib or filet. Two weeks ago, though, the menu was limited to barbecued babyback ribs and burgers on the grill, Buffalo chicken dip studded with parsley and celery and a platter of "healthy fruit."

"We didn't have room," George apologized, as if the ribs -- sizzling beneath a slick coat of gooey sauce -- were something to sneeze at.

Dan Wolovich's tailgates are notable for their size (there can be as many as 125 people), the music (he has a DJ at least twice a season) and the "Steelers Nation" van guests gather around (in a salute to Myron Cope, the license plate reads DBL YOI). Then there's the spread, to which many contribute and which becomes increasingly elaborate as the season progresses. Tonight's Italian feast is expected to include lasagna, sweet sausage and several types of pasta; Caribbean Night on Oct. 4 versus the Chargers will boast the flavorful food of the islands, along with a reggae band. The Murrysville resident also has been known to deep-fry three turkeys at a single tailgate, 15 minutes apart, "so everyone gets a piece that's hot."

And when it's his turn in the kitchen?

"My family is Polish, so it'll be halushki, pierogies and grilled kielbasa," said Mr. Wolovich, senior vice president of sales at Vitran Express. He has missed only two games, and tailgates, since 1969.

It's that kind of fanaticism that drives people from other parts of the country to try to copy the Pittsburgh tailgate tradition in their own stadium parking lots. But often, it's a pale imitation.

NFL fans outside of Pittsburgh might try to throw a good pre-game party, explained Justin Anderson, who moved from Ross to Charlotte, N.C., a few years ago, but they really don't have a clue. So he and a group of diehard Steelers fans agreed to demonstrate what it takes on live TV before the Sept. 3 game against the Carolina Panthers.

The 5 a.m. start at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, one of the oldest Steelers bars in Charlotte, was mind-numbingly early. And Jon Wilson's live remote for Fox WCCB Charlotte was a little nerve-wracking. But once they got rolling, it felt almost like they were outside Heinz Field sans the roar of the crowd. The feast included pierogies imported from Pittsburgh, grilled kielbasa, German potato salad and Mr. Anderson's Steel City Burgers, which he grinds himself from chuck roast, slathers in butter and then serves Primanti-style with coleslaw and French fries on top.

"People were kind of staring at us funny on their way to work, but I think they look at us crazy Steelers fans with a grain of salt," he said, laughing.

"That's what football, and tailgating, is all about," he added. "Being dedicated to your team, and stuffing yourself with really good food."

Not necessarily in that order.

The tailgating delicacies above were all on the Heinz Field lots menu for a recent preseason game. They can be on your menu, too. Find Steelers tailgaters' recipes for Hash Brown Potato Skins, Tailgating Stuffed Peppers and 'Burgh Brownies on Page D-4. You can practically taste them in Gretchen McKay's and Steve Mellon's tailgating video at post-gazette.com/food

Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419. First Published September 10, 2009 4:00 AM


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