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Food Issue - Tales from the tailgate

Pre-gaming is an essential part of Southern sports culture. At the 2015 season opener, thousands of Atlanta Falcons fans took it to the max.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the first occurrence of tailgating happened. In a 2014 Vice article, "War, Beheadings, and Booze: A brief history of tailgating," writer Matt Osgood outlines the possible origins of what has become a great American pastime. During France's Reign of Terror spectators are said to have gathered to knit and eat at public executions. The American Tailgate Association contends that the first tailgate took place on a Sunday in 1861, when civilians toting food and booze congregated on the sidelines as Union and Confederate forces clashed at the First Battle of Bull Run. A tamer, less bloody origin story traces tailgating to Yale football around the early 20th century, where fans from opposing teams travelling by bus or train would arrive to the stadium early, bring food, and wait for the game to start.

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"Tailgating can get a bad name with regard to overconsumption of booze and the terrible violence that can sometimes accompany it, but it has its roots in conviviality," Osgood said when asked to share the takeaway from his research. "Throughout history, even in its darkest times, tailgating brought people together with the time-honored tradition of sharing food and booze. We participate not solely to get drunk or to cheer my team against your team, but in the good-hearted spirit of a shared experience."

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Origins aside, modern American tailgating has evolved into a place for people to connect. In the South, where football is practically a religion, a tailgate party is more than a mere social event. It's a celebration that embodies the pride and loyalty people feel for where they come from, or, at least, where they are at the time. Here in the A, there are legions of diehard Atlanta Falcons fans dedicated to the art of tailgating. At every home game, thousands of people wearing black and red gather in the parking lots surrounding the Georgia Dome to exalt their Dirty Birds.

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Hot dogs cooked on a miniature Weber grill may technically count as tailgating, but the most hardcore aficionados dedicate large portions of their time and income to creating lounge-like environments with amenities such as La-Z-Boy recliners, professional-grade flattop grills, multi-tiered smokers, and enough food and drink to feed a professional football team. This year's Falcons season opener, a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles, was no exception.

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CL photographer Erik Meadows and I decided to crash the party.

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Kickoff was scheduled for 7 p.m., but many people we encountered told us they'd started setting up as early as noon. Most groups congregated under pop-up tents — many branded with the Falcons logo — for protection against the elements. The most over-the-top tailgate crews had flat-screen TVs or inflatable movie screens to project the game. Many had their own DJ booths with club-grade sound systems. As we made our rounds, we heard everything from SWV's "Anything" to Lil Kim's "Magic Stick," and lots and lots of T.I.

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An all-women tailgate crew led by Monica Davenport fried fish and served it with amazing baked beans and cheesy broccoli rice casserole. I met newlyweds Mars and Jennifer Stevenson, who had just tailgated their way across America for their honeymoon. At every Falcons tailgate, the Stevensons prepare a dish from the visiting team's city. Tonight, as the Falcons prepared to take on the Eagles, they cooked cheese steaks.

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When asked to explain why they tailgate so hard, almost everyone cited their love for the Falcons. But there was something deeper than team spirit going on in those parking lots. Tailgating is about being part of something larger than yourself. It's a place where the act of communal celebration puts life's woes on pause and enjoying the hell out of the moment is all that matters.

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??Erik Meadows???Reginald Wilson of Douglasville, Ga., who has been tailgating for 15 years, tends to his smoker on wheels, which housed several whole chickens and whole racks of ribs with room to spare. Wilson’s full menu for the day included ribs, chicken, fish, hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans, corn, coleslaw, potato salad, greens, green beans, and more.???
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??Erik Meadows???During Falcons home games, the Georgia Dome parking lot at the corner of Northside Drive and Magnolia Street is covered with umbrellas, tents, trucks, smokers, dancing, and thousands of enthusiastic fans.???
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??Erik Meadows???At one festive tailgate, a DJ and an emcee drew crowds of passersby to stop by and dance.???
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??Erik Meadows???Gwen Hall (left) of Douglasville, Ga., hails from the tailgate team the Bird Cage and has been tailgating since 1996. Her bar was so well-stocked and full of life it drew crowds from both sides of the field. Gwen and her husband, Mike, routinely cook up tailgate feasts that include grilled and fried fish and grits, hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, ribs, pork chops, baked beans, Cajun rice, macaroni and cheese, brownies, and cupcakes served on buffet-style tables.???
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??Erik Meadows???A man cracks oysters open with a long lever and metal pick.???
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??Erik Meadows???An all-women tailgate crew fried fish and served it with baked beans and broccoli-cheese casserole.???
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??Erik Meadows???Terry Pride (left) of Decatur greets a friend and enjoys a cigar.???
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??Erik Meadows???The most hardcore tailgaters start planning for the event weeks in advance. It's common to see serious cooking equipment outside the Georgia Dome on game days. Enthusiasts routinely bring full-sized charcoal grills, portable flat-top griddles, and multi-tiered smokers.???
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??Erik Meadows???At every Falcons tailgate, newlyweds Mars and Jennifer Stevenson prepare a dish from the visiting team’s city. Here they’re cooking up Philly cheese steaks — inspired by the Falcons’ opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, on their portable flat-top grill. The Stevenson’s also regularly grill hot dogs, hamburgers, and brats. If it’s an early game that requires a morning arrival, they always prepare a loaded grits bar.???
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??Erik Meadows???Rodney Juggins of Atlanta grills nine burgers at one time on a portable griddle. For Juggins, who has been tailgating for the last nine years, the first rule is to be on time. The second is to enjoy.???
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??Erik Meadows???Folks at Melvin L. Davis Sr.’s tailgate fry up some fish in a huge pot of oil.???
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??Erik Meadows???Meticulously labeled condiments from Billy Gray’s Farm Burger-sponsored tailgate.???
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??Erik Meadows???A large pan of grilled chicken and vegetables from Gwen and Mike Hall’s tailgate.???
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??Erik Meadows???An array of sausages cooked on a large grill brought to the tailgate.???
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??Erik Meadows???Atlanta Falcons fan Janice Walker has serious team spirit and isn't afraid to show it.???

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??Erik Meadows???Hoping to capitalize on the tailgaters' festive spirit, Christian Suarez, aka Dome Defender, sells NFL luchador masks.???
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??Erik Meadows???Melvin L. Davis Sr. has been tailgating for 45 years. He and his family created an outdoor lounge outside the Georgia Dome complete with Astroturf, a flat-screen TV, and even a huge potted plant.???
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??Erik Meadows???A spirited group of tailgaters dances under a pop-up tent outside the stadium.???

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??Erik Meadows???A Falcons fan from the Hot Ashes II tailgate crew enjoys a cigar while pulling sausages off the grill.???
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??Erik Meadows???Terry Pride tends to his “infamous” barbecue chicken at the tailgate site he shares with his cigar buddies, the Hott Ashes II crew. The two Falcons stadiums loom in the distance. The forthcoming Mercedes-Benz Stadium (right), which is slated to open in 2017, will eventually replace what's been the Atlanta Falcons’ home since 1992, the Georgia Dome.????
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