As the NFL's "Commissioner of Tailgating," Joe Cahn has attended tailgates at all 32 NFL stadiums, more than 120 collegiate venues and nine NASCAR race tracks. In all, this New Orleans native figures he's traveled more than 800,000 miles to about 800 parking-lot parties since 1996, a lip-smacking journey that has included several stops in Western Pennsylvania, most recently this past January for the NHL's Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
What he has discovered during his travels is that -- surprise -- Pittsburghers are a passionate bunch when it comes to supporting their sports teams.
"They're just incredible fans," he said. "Even if they're playing out of town, they take over a parking lot."
This Sunday, Mr. Cahn once again will be battling the crowds at Heinz Field as part of a 17-city tour of NFL stadiums. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say he'll be outside the field in the parking lot where, as spokesman for the Aluminum Association's first "can crusade," he'll be reminding fans that aluminum cans are the smartest choice in tailgating beverages.
The nationwide campaign touting the benefits of aluminum kicked off with the season on Sept. 7 at the Brown County Fairgrounds near Green Bay, Wis. In 24 hours, Mr. Cahn and a group of 60 volunteers broke an eight-year Guinness world record for the longest can train by stringing together 66,343 cans, creating a chain nearly 5 miles long.
If that sounds like a lot, consider this: Fans actually leave behind more than 200,000 cans and bottles at each game, Mr. Cahn said. Hence, the importance of recycling initiatives such as the one launched last year at Heinz Field and funded by the Alcoa Foundation. In just five games, the "Let's Tackle Recycling" campaign kept nearly 8 tons of recyclables out of local landfills.
But on to what's really on Steelers' fans minds as the team prepares to take on the Tennessee Titans: the tailgate itself.
With so many events under Mr. Cahn's apron, it's safe to say this former cooking-school owner has a playbook of ideas for how to plan a great game-day party.
He says it's simple, really, as long as you "get there early, be a good neighbor, wear your colors and do all your prep work at home."
Above all, he advises tailgate chefs to keep the menu simple -- in terms of the number of dishes served and the amount of cooking involved once you set up shop -- so you have as much time as possible to hang out with family and friends.
Given the fancy spreads some sports fans lay out, you might think tailgating lives and dies by the food. Yet in Mr. Cahn's opinion, the pre-game ritual is about so much more than who makes the tastiest hot sausage sandwich or gourmet chocolate chip cookie.
"It's the new American social," he said, "the last great American neighborhood where people get together and socialize. Tailgating is the original Facebook, except when you 'friend' someone in the parking lot, you get to eat."
Before embarking on his tailgating career, Mr. Cahn was a Creole/Cajun cook, and a pretty good one, teaching thousands the basics of Louisiana cuisine as owner of the New Orleans School of Cooking from 1980 from 1994. During his first year on the road in 1996, Mr. Cahn would serve up pot after pot of his homemade jambalaya to fans from the back of his 40-foot "Joemobile" RV.
Eventually, it dawned on him: If he were throwing the party each week, he couldn't be a guest at one and taste all the regional specialties fans were cooking up. So these days he's focusing on the delicious dishes others are serving.
Fancy or not, tailgating foods tend to be regional: wings in Buffalo, lobster in New England, bratwurst simmered in beer in Wisconsin. Before visiting Pittsburgh, for instance, Mr. Cahn, as a quintessential "Southern boy," wouldn't have known what to do with a pierogi. Now he knows they can be steamed, deep-fried, boiled and even grilled, "though that's a little harder because they fall apart."
That's the great thing about parking-lot cooking -- it's so educational. If you see something that looks good when you're walking around, just ask and the cook will tell you how he or she did it. Who knows, you might even get a sample.
"People love to talk about food at tailgates," he said. "It's the greatest free cooking lesson in the country."
What strikes Mr. Cahn most about Pittsburgh tailgates is the amount of beer drunk out of kegs -- more than any other place in the country, he argues -- and the quality and variety of meat sizzling away on grills, thanks to the city's many ethnic neighborhoods.
"There's not too many places around the country with so many good butchers," he said.
Got a parking-lot recipe you're especially proud of? Fans are encouraged to interact with The Commish via Twitter or Facebook or by visiting Tailgating.com; you also can check in at his RV on Foursquare.
Or this Sunday, simply look for the bald guy with the white Santa Claus beard and Hines Ward jersey who looks like he's on the hunt for cans. Then, he said, "invite me over to eat."
Buffalo Chicken Wing Soup
Most everyone loves Buffalo chicken dip on game day. This easy recipe has all the same great flavors, only in the form of a soup. You can play around with the thickness of the soup by using light cream or heavy cream, and also milk. (Skim milk will make it quite thin.)
- 1/4 cup (1 stick) butter
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 2 carrot sticks, peeled and chopped
- 1 small Vidalia onion, diced
- 1/4 cup flour
- 14 ounces chicken stock
- 2 to 3 cups of cooked, shredded chicken
- 1 pint (2 cups) light cream
- 8 ounce bottle of hot sauce (I used Frank's Red Hot)
- 8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
- Crumbled bleu cheese, for garnish
Melt the butter in a stockpot. Add the celery, carrots and onion. Cook until tender. Add the flour and stir to coat the vegetables. Add chicken stock and continue stirring until the sauce begins to thicken and all flour lumps are dissolved.
Add cooked chicken and light cream and continue stirring to combine the cream. Turn heat higher up to almost a boil. When mixture is very warm, add hot sauce and cheddar cheese. Stir well to mix ingredients.
Serve with crumbled bleu cheese on top.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- Heather K. of Buffalo, N.Y., on Tailgating.com
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419.