Game day grub: Meet the big grillers from Michigan football tailgates
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According to the American Tailgater Association (yes, it’s a real thing), the first tailgate may have occurred at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 when civilians from the Union side gathered at the first Battle of Bull Run with baskets of food shouting “Go Big Blue.” Some things change, and others stay the same.
Today, fans spend up to tens of thousands of dollars every season to have the biggest or fanciest grills, largest and most high definition televisions, and massive amounts of food and alcohol to consumer before watching their team “do battle” on the field. But, at least in Ann Arbor, they still yell “Go Blue” at every opportunity.
I had the pleasure of exploring the sprawling tailgates around Michigan Stadium before the first two games of the year. Some of the more interesting and unique stories I found included a family with a motorized barstool, a tailgate where people play board games instead of tossing beanbags, and of course "Margarita Don" with his gas-powerd margarita blender.
During my wandering, I also took note of some of the most elaborate and impressive tailgate chefs. They bring their massive grills to the games week in and week out, supplying food to hundreds of people. Why? Because it’s game day, and that’s what they do.
The On-Call Chef
Matt Riley hosts a tailgate with three friends that is even more over-the-top than many of the RVs or trucks parked across the city. He and his partners host a tailgate in the garage behind a house they co-own on Berkley Street that can cost upwards of $5,000 per game.
Riley met Tim McGrath, who cooks for the event, at a golf outing thirteen years ago in Fair Haven, Mich. He’s been the executive chef for the tailgate ever since.
“I won a pig roast for 60 people at the outing, that was back in 1999,” he said. “So Tim came and did the roast and then he never left.”
McGrath prepares food for the 125-300 people who come to the tailgates every week on a massive grill that sits behind the garage. Standard fare includes, chicken, hot dogs, sausages, and baked beans, but McGrath has special menus for different occasions.
For noon games, the cook for McFats Meats catering company in Fair Haven whips up a full breakfast buffet with bacon and eggs. For the Michigan State he is preparing to roast a full 170-pound hog to feed the 300 guests Riley is expecting for the pre-game festivities.
The Blue Loonies
Rooting for the Wolverines is not just for Michiganders, and neither is tailgating. Ross Mitton comes to Ann Arbor with a massive multi-purpose grill complete with stovetops. The contraption is expertly arranged on a trailer attached to the back of the SUV he drives in from Windsor, Ontario for every home football game (and some away ones as well).
“I brought this whole thing down to Texas for the Michigan-Alabama game,” he said. “Let me tell you, we got some interesting looks on the highway.”
Mitton leads the “Blue Loonies” group that comes from as far away as Halifax to cheer on the Wolverines. He said his group ranges in size every week and spends anywhere from $200 to $400 on food and at least $400 on alcohol for every game.
The tailgate always starts with an appetizer of shrimp or chicken wings, followed by the main course of steaks or ribs. The group reserves six spots on the golf course across from Michigan Stadium for their festivities.
Mitton did not go to U-M, and said that many of the group come more for the atmosphere than the football, but at the end of the day there’s one thing that holds them together.
“To quote Brady Hoke, ‘it’s Michigan, baby.’”
Go Big or Go Home
Some people just don’t know when to stop spending. Four U-M alumni who tailgate up on the top of the hill on the golf course are never satisfied with their setup, and have been adding on to it every year.
The grill-master of the group said it started out just as a way to move the grill from one building to another.
After that they mounted it on a trailer, and it just kept growing. Then came giving it its own batter power, and before you know it just kept getting bigger and more grandiose every year.
The power trailer has two golf-cart batteries driving its operation, and contains a large grill in addition to a cook-top for pots and pan cooking. The menu at this tailgate sounds a bit more like what you might find at an upscale rustic restaurant than on a golf course.
A muscles, clam, and steamers boil follows a cheese and bread that seems just slightly upscale for a football game. With appetizers out of the way, campfire potatoes, corn on the cob, and fresh vegetables accompany the main course of marinated grilled chicken and rib eye steaks.
The fans insisted they didn’t even want to think about how much they had spent collectively in the endeavor, but they agreed that there was no choice but to “go big or go home.”