Picture this: It is a bright, crisp fall afternoon. The sun is shining. There’s good food on the grill. Your favorite football team plays in about half an hour, and you are surrounded by thousands and thousands of your closest friends. As loyal fans all over Kentucky know, tailgating is not just a fun way to spend a fall afternoon. It is a tradition, and institution and a way of life.

Who would know better than Kelli and Jayna Oakley? For the past year Jayna and her sister-in law Kelli have combed the haunts of Kentucky’s tailgaters, attending sometimes two or three football games a weekend. There they listened as fans from all over the nation reminisced about great games and parties, made predictions about the coming games, explained menus and tried to articulate what kept them coming back to cheer for their teams year after year.

The result of all this research has been distilled into a new book, out this week, Kentucky Talegating Stories with Sauce, which documents in photos, recipes and essays the lore of Kentucky tailgating.

“What we really came away with was a sense of how tailgating had become such a tradition,” said Jayna. “An activity that really had generated its own communities and built relationships that have been strong enough to keep people coming back year after year. It also has a lot to do with family tradition, the people we talked to are often second or third generation tailgaters and are now handing down their recipes and team loyalties to their own children.”

But one doesn’t have to be a veteran tailgater to appreciate Stories with Sauce. In fact, for the novices among us, Kelli and Jayna have included a handy beginner’s guide to tailgating in the front of their book, a “Playbook” in the football language that laces Kentucky Talegating.

1. Pack for the long haul.

Getting ready for an upcoming football season in Kentucky usually means realizing that you have to pack several types of clothing for all of Kentucky’s fickle weather.

Kelli and Jayna recommend that the serial tailgater just go ahead and leave the bag of extra ponchos, sweaters, socks, and hats in the vehicle for the entire season. After all, you never know when the urge to tailgate might strike.

2. Plan for the eats.

Make sure you do the prep work a day or two before the game, [and] keep your menu simple so that you’ll have time to enjoy old friends and tantalize new neighboring tailgaters.

A day or two before the game? Hmmm, so scratch that last part about improvisational tailgating, unless you plan on picking up takeout from a fried chicken place—another venerable Kentucky tradition.

But judging by the breadth and complexity of some of the recipes in Stories with Sauce, menus at tailgates can be anything but simple. Recipes featured in the book include those authored by the Bruce family of Hopkinsville, who in a single season dress enough wild doves to feed hundreds of fellow tailgaters, sometimes more than 100 for a single game.

“I have my own recipe.” Said Bill Bruce, “that includes a three day marinade and a bacon wrap.” If that weren’t labor intensive enough, the Bruces wash down their wild game with as many as 500 Jell-o slammers.

Or take Darrell Hail, who provides detailed instructions on how to roast a whole pig; from how to keep it cold before you cook it (10 bags of ice and a clean tarp work well), to a suggested dry rub for seasoning, modified from his own top-secret special sauce. This is heady stuff, not for the novice or the timid cook.

But not all the recipes included are so complex. There are plenty of tips for eats that are less time consuming but surely almost as yummy. The recipes are helpfully organized by section into Kickoffs (starters, chips and dips), Ruffaging the Kicker (salads), Bowl Games (chilies, soups and stews), Off Sides (side dishes), perhaps most importantly Cheer-liters (drink recipes) and many others.

Recipes were contributed by tailgaters of all stripes and loyalties, and include a dazzling number by local celebrities including Mayor Theresa Isaacs, UK President Lee Todd, and former EKU head coach Roy Kidd.

Noteworthy local chefs got in on the action too. Executive Chef Michael Simpson contributed an example the recipes he used to prepare one of the special pre-game feasts hosted by University of Kentucky president Lee Todd for opposing team presidents, Kentucky dignitaries and some 200 or so other notables. These luncheons were held in the special dining room below the stands at Commonwealth Stadium, and one can only assume featured food more fancy than your standard tailgate fare.

Each contributor is identified by name, hometown and, of course, team affiliation, both college and high school if they so choose.

3. Be Prepared.

Whether you cook or bring food already prepared, make a list of items you plan on taking, including paper dinnerware, trash bags, and damp towels. No matter how large your party of tailgaters, remember, too, you will be sharing with wanted and unwanted neighbors and new friends so bring lots of everything.

Making new friends and rekindling old ones is easily the number one reason cited for people’s return to tailgating year after year. Many of the established tailgating communities, containing easily four or more families, met through tailgating, after setting up their RVs and grill beside each other for years’ worth of game days. At each tailgate new friendships are formed, based on shared experience, team loyalty and the generous sharing of salt packets and moist towelettes.

All of this generosity might sound a little like communism, and if you thought so, you wouldn’t be the first one. But not to fear, tailgating is entirely unlike the red plague, as a few people were kind enough to explain at a bar after Saturday night’s game. The key is in tailgating strict adherence to the rules of private land ownership. Novice tailgaters be warned, your parking space is your parking space. Passing out on other people’s cars, vomiting on other people’s tires or taking a leak in other people’s grills is strictly forbidden and will be dealt with harshly.

4. Come Early. Park Well.

You will want to arrive at least three or four hours early to begin your whole cooking process as well as to find a great parking space. If at all possible, park near a grassy spot or at the end of a parking row—and by all means, near a port-a-potty.

The dearth of really good tailgating spots might explain why people them jealously. Beware though, one of the tailgating stories featured in Stories involves a flipped porta-potty, so you might not want to get too close. (Other colorful stories involve strippers, but those are for other stories, other days.)

5. Show Your Pride.

Once your food is on the grill you will want to spend some time getting out your school flags and decorating your site. If you have electricity you will definitely want to fire up your boom box and play your school fight song as loud as you can or at least until your neighbors complain.

School affiliation is critical to the community of tailgating, since obviously you will tend to feel more generosity of spirit towards those of similar pack loyalties. Of course sometimes this is not possible.

Even in the Oakley’s own family there are some black sheep. Kelli’s youngest son Josh, is a diehard Georgia fan. Her oldest son Ryan, is an even more passionate supporter of Tennessee. He even painted his room bright orange.

Complimented on her status as “a very tolerant mother,” she responds with a sigh, “Well, I try…But you don’t know how much I wanted to put him down as a wildcat fan for this book.”

From the moment of its inception, Kentucky Talegating has been a true family project. In addition to Jayna and Kelli’s own recipe contributions most of the other family members gave tips for their own favorite pre-game tasties. In fact, Kelli gives much of the credit for this book to her mother and both her grandmothers, who originally taught her the art and lore of good southern cooking.

The family’s enthusiasm springs not only from a love of food but a love of sports. Kelli’s husband Eddie is a head coach for Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. His recipe for “Bulldog Potato Salad” is countered by Tates Creek High School coach Joe Pat Covington’s recipe for “Commodore Cole Slaw.” Eddie is also proud to be one who first sold a copy of his wife and sister’s book.

Jayna and Eddie’s mother and father were both coaches. Jayna herself played on the first High School Basketball team at Bryan Station High School and went on to play Softball at the University of Kentucky.

Kelli’s sons are also heavily involved in sports; basketball, football and baseball between them, enough to cover the entire calendar year.

“We’re at a game almost every weekend.” Kellie said.

Looking through Stories With Sauce it becomes clear what a family centered activity college sports are, and not just for the Oakleys.

Tales abound of parents who passionatly supported their children’s playing, from one generation to the next, coming to see them play in all kinds of conditions, driving unbelievable distances, cooking unbelievable food.

A dramatic example, Larry Beard, put over 100,000 miles on his truck making the eleven-hour drive from his home in Florida to see his son play football at EKU. During the four years Jared played Larry only missed one game.

But it isn’t only the parents who go to extraordinary lengths to support their teams. Ellen Huston, who turned 91 in July hasn’t missed an EKU game since 1975. As if that weren’t impressive enough, her group of tailgaters—Shriners and wives of Shriners—have been tailgating EKU games since 1937, and haven’t missed a single game since World War II.

Some of those who get in on the action don’t even have a specific affiliation with Kentucky. Take New York native Gary Bartoo, a die-hard Wildcat fan who makes at least one trip a year to see UK play, though the Temple University alum has no formal ties to the university. Although it was Wildcat basketball that first piqued Bartoo’s interest, his eyes soon wandered over to Commonwealth Stadium as well. “There’s just a great atmosphere here for football fans.” Said Bartoo. “Kentucky is just a great state for college sports.”

The breadth of Kentucky sports fans devotion to their teams and their cooking can be gauged by the remarkable success that Jayna and Kellie have had with their book. In the first four days of pre-orders they sold one hundred copies of their book.

“Really what we’re doing is unique.” Said Jayna. “There are only a few books on tailgating—I think I own most of them. They talk about the food, some have a few old black and white photos. But what they are missing are the stories, both old and new, and they miss the vitality and texture that makes tailgating such a thriving American tradition. That’s what Kelli and I wanted to capture.”

And to a remarkable extent they have. Local enthusiasm for the book is so great that months after the book’s galleys have been printed the Oakley’s are still being inundated with recipe suggestions and favorite tailgating stories.

So what’s next? A second volume of Stories With Sauce is already well in the works, featuring more recipes, more photos and, of course, more stories. “The stories are great.” Laughs Kelli. “Maybe we’ll just forget about the recipes and concentrate on the stories.”

But really it is a little too soon to say what form the next edition of Kentucky Talegating will take. In the meantime Jayna and Kellie are being kept busy negotiating with bookstores, giving interviews on local radio shows, attending book fairs, and, of course, tailgating.

What started out small venture that seemed like a perfect marriage of Kelli’s background in catering and public relations and Jayna’s background in sports and journalism has become a phenomena. “In the beginning we were planning on self publishing.” Said Jayna. “We put together a little book ourselves—really elementary…”

“Not that elementary.” Objects Kelli.

“Well, certainly not professional.” Concedes Jayna. “We put this little book together and we took it to Kentucky Crafted in Louisville. While we were there a publisher approached us out of the blue and offered to take us on. That’s when we knew we were on to something.”

The best part of this whole process? “I have to admit, I’m dying to see the first real copy of the book.” Said Jayna. “I’m a journalist and really I’ve been looking forward to seeing my name on a cover for most of my life.”

“I never really dreamed I’d ever see my name on a cover.” Said Kelli.

“Really what I enjoyed most was meeting all these great people, that and the food of course.”

“Right.” Said Jayna. “Of course. The food is vital.” n

The tailgater’s Must Not Forget list.

  • Cooler with ice
  • Bottle opener
  • First aid kit
  • Toilet paper
  • Sun block
  • Blankets/towels
  • Rain tarp
  • Game tickets
  • Parking pass
  • Jumper cables
  • Grill utensils
  • Antacids
  • More ice
  • Coffee for the next morning
  • Hot sauce
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Friends
  • More ice