Picture this--it's a few degrees above freezing, and the Broncos are about to play Louisiana Tech in the last home game of a record-breaking season. The effects of their golden year have rippled high and low, causing a justified ruckus in the BCS and riling up a local fan base in the many thousands. Bronco fans are known for their fearlessness in the face of cold weather and ridicule (wearing pom-poms in your pants does have its consequences), but even more impressive than their spirit turf-side is their artfulness in the parking lot. What am I getting at? Those Bronco fans cook a mean bratwurst.
At 11 a.m., I layer two fleeces and a down coat, thermal pants, jeans, ski socks, a wool beanie and two pairs of gloves. There is no way I'm going to let the coldest day of the year (literally) stop me from enjoying my very first live Bronco game and the veritable buffet of tailgate goodies. Foraging along the Julia Davis side of the river, I come upon something that looks like a nomadic village. Party tents billow in the wind (which is reaching hurricane force), and dozens of people are drinking, eating and laughing around two long tables covered with edible Americana. There is a roaring fire in the center of the encampment, and a collection of chairs sit empty in front of a television blaring the pre-game show. Everyone I see treats me like I'm one of them, just another friend waiting for a juicy Kobe beef burger with Swiss on a toasted sesame bun. No one has any idea who I am, but there are so many folks in this group that no one really notices. When I announce my name and purpose, they warm even more, giving me a tour of the day's menu. According to Misty Dustin, this feast is paltry compared to the usual routine.
"We went the whole season without having burgers, so we decided to do it today," she says, waving her hand over the abundance of side dishes like Vanna White on a vowel. There are homemade baked beans with big chunks of pork, two colors of corn chips with a six-layer dip, loaded baked potatoes, hot dogs, teriyaki chicken, shell pasta salad with black olives and purple grapes, several winter floral arrangements and plates full of pre-sliced fixings for the meat sizzling on the grill.
Mark Young, who has been watching Boise State games since he was a kid, is on burger detail, and he has four or five huge patties cooking at once. He explains that the crew has been camped out since five this morning. For breakfast they had omelets, bacon, Bailey's and coffee, hot cocoa, Bloody Marys and bagel sandwiches.
"Everyone takes turns doing the main course," Young says, "and it's been that way for about five years." He adds that a typical tailgate meal includes hibachi steak, tenderloin tip or deep fried turkeys. Trying to work out the logistics of a deep fried turkey, I notice Dustin and her friend Andrea Dunning playing with a pair of garish, fantastical necklaces. They are strung with blue and orange fluff and big enough for Zabransky to spot from the 5-yard line. And there are bracelets to match.
"We're all gonna lose weight after today," Dustin laughs, sinking her teeth into a steaming hot spoonful of baked beans. Dunning has not eaten a single bite since I've been here, but she is nursing a drink in a Dixie cup.
"What's your poison?" I ask.
"Water, of course," she giggles.
"Jack and Coke?" I say.
"Crown and Coke," she whispers. This just happens to be one of my favorite cocktails, and I wander off with whiskey on my mind and a colossal, medium rare slab of beef in my hands (okay, on a plate).
The next hut down, Fred Haines and company are dining on barbecued sausage, fried rice and the quintessential finger food assortment. He explains that his group usually does "theme" tailgates, fajitas, chips and salsa for Mexican and some delightful SPAM dish for Hawaiian. His friends rave about Haines' shish kabobs, yakitori sticks and lil' smoky special, and they are quick to share their beverage weakness--vodka--with orange juice, champagne or straight up. They also dig a little hot chocolate (with Schnapps) while watching the halftime show from their satellite TV.
"If they're whoopin' 'em 50-0, then we come back and party. The tailgate is the whole thing," Reilly Hawkins says.
Next door to the vodka triplets is a full-on living room by a truck that reads "Furniture City, USA." Go Figure. This merry band has been lounging since 8 a.m. on two couches, a love seat and a recliner, and they are still working on a supply of bratwurst, hot dogs, beans and burgers.
"Before the wind started blowing it was awesome," says Keith Rowley, but he gives all of the credit to a rosy-cheeked woman named Karen Watson. She has the best earmuffs I've ever seen, and I can see why the group lets her delegate.
"I brought my living room!" she laughs. "We usually do this closer to the stadium, but you have to get there the night before to reserve a spot."
When I come down the hill from the bridge into the main parking lot, I understand what Watson means. A sea of trucks, campers, RVs, card tables, tarps, generators, big screens and throngs of people surround the stadium, some too drunk to leave the safety of the tailgate. One in particular catches my eye. A tall, well-dressed man is turning ribeyes on a shiny new grill under a heat lamp. His hat is backwards, and he shoves plate after plate of choice cuts into the hands of his hungry friends. When I first walk up, he ignores me. After all, I am a mere abominable snow beast in search of scraps. When I get his attention after perusing the snacks (Cheetos, peanuts, Doritos, jerky, hot wings), he tells me that this is the Corey Barton Homes. Apparently, Corey Barton does it up to the tune of 200 steaks, 60 pounds of wings, 600 hot dogs and six kegs on a rented piece of primo parking lot. Then he flips a Cheeto stylishly into his mouth.
Across the way in peasant-land, I meet Ned Evett's drummer Bret Porter who just happens to be hanging out with my man-about-town neighbor, Todd. They are drinking cheap beer in cans and dining on probably the best food I've seen or tried all day. Porter comes from a Basque family (despite his being a self-proclaimed German white-trash monkey), and the beans are killer. Not too spicy, they are a hot, rich mixture of red beans, hunks of chorizo, lots of garlic and "a little bit of secret," according to Porter.
"It's supposed to be about football, but it's about eating," he says, handing me a sputtering chorizo in a charred bun. The crispy, smoky bread against the taut skin of the sausage is orgasmic. My third bite in, the chorizo splits and squirts. "We've got a geyser!" Porter yells, and for once in my life, I lick the grease from my hand with abandon.