Welcome to Horkfest, where we explore frontiers old and new the only way we know how: by stuffing our faces.
It’s 7 AM in Baton Rouge on the morning of a home game for the Louisiana State University Tigers, arguably the best setting for a college football tailgate, and the air hangs heavy with the scent of lighter fluid.
The then-fourth-ranked Tigers will be taking on the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide at seven that evening, and I’m ready to spend the next 12 hours eating and drinking my way through the Cajun-food wonderland that is an LSU tailgate party. My guide is Jay Ducote, a Baton Rouge-born LSU alumni, runner-up of Food Network Star, and chef at the nearby Government Taco.
Ducote is preparing a killer spread—ostensibly for the hosts of ESPN’s College GameDay, but actually for the cameras of ESPN’s College GameDay. On a piece of bleacher that he stole years ago from Tiger Stadium, Ducote spreads a whole grilled redfish stuffed with lemons; two-dozen grilled oysters swimming in butter, cream, and cheese; fist-sized grilled Gulf shrimp; a rack of ribs; stuffed crabs; and multiple kinds of boudin—spicy pork and rice sausage. I snack on the grilled bread and shrimp while he sets up, but after the whole tray comes back—nearly untouched by Desmond Howard, Lee Corso, et al—I really attack it.
The food and the football mingle in more than just the physical space here. According to signs I see in the GameDay crowd, Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban: asks for BBQ sauce at Raising Cane’s, subs toast for slaw, eats raw pasta, prefers a nice autumnal mead, makes his gumbo with Jimmy Dean sausage, eats his crawfish with a fork, and puts kale in his gumbo. Alabama fans, meanwhile, buy boudin from WalMart and “tried to eat my sign, but it’s too spicy.”
I proceed to destroy a half-dozen boudin balls, a few shrimp and most of the oysters, along with a few stuffed crabs before the set gets torn down around 11 AM and we head out to the real tailgate parties. Within seconds of arriving at the first one, I’m handed sausage, fried soft-shell crab, and a deep-fried Twinkie—which probably would have been great if it hadn’t shared both the fryer oil and batter with the crab—along with an old-fashioned made using home-preserved cherries.
Tailgating here has its own unique traditions, one of them being that they “Cook the Enemy,” which means serving the rival’s mascot on the menu. Hearing this ahead of time, I raised an eyebrow. That makes sense when they play the Florida Gators, South Carolina Gamecocks, or Arizona Razorbacks (hogs); but Alabama’s mascot is an elephant.
The mother of this tailgate host—tailgates here are multi-generational parties—assures me that although her “Dumbo gumbo” is full of okra, smoked sausage, smoked chicken, and andouille, no actual elephants were harmed in the making. It is one of two dishes at this party alone dubbed “Dumbo gumbo,” the other being a pork sauce piquante—a sort of hybrid gumbo-tomato stew dish with, as the name implies, a bit of heat. I also eat my way through the non elephant-monikered aspects of the buffet: green beans, brisket, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, mac and cheese, and a tray of something that looks very similar. This is later identified to me as “pizza pasta,” which involves olives, mozzarella, and pepperoni. It turns out to be the best spread we hit all day and I have no regrets that I’ve filled up early.
The family tailgate was not totally unlike the kinds of tailgate parties I attend regularly in Seattle (Go Huskies!), just with significantly better food. But our next stop is a different genre entirely: the corporate law firm tailgate. We’re given wristbands that grant us access to a bar that’s better equipped—with high-end bottles, an ice-luge, and real bartenders—than any cocktail lounge that charges less than $15 a drink. The catered buffet is lackluster (I took two bites of my limp meat pie and left it for dead) but one of the hosts, kneeling by a small vat of sputtering oil in the corner, asks if I want a freshly-fried corndog. And, yes, obviously, I do. It’s the best corndog I’ve ever eaten, the batter spiked with a bit of local heat.
I wonder aloud how companies can afford parties like this, and Ducote explains that it’s just a line item on a marketing budget here—instead of an ad on a subway, they throw a tailgate. “We’ll pay all kinds of money to party,” a nearby chef jokes about Baton Rouge, “but none for a new interstate.”
Top-shelf spirits in hand, we head to the next destination where we’ll learn that Dumbo gumbo isn’t the only way to cook an elephant.
From 100 feet away, it sure looks like they had a whole baby elephant grilling over open flame. Upon closer inspection, well, it still looks a whole hell of a lot like a baby elephant. It is actually cochon de lait, or roasted whole suckling pig—but with an extra pork tenderloin attached at the snout as a trunk and two extra pork chops serving as oversized ears. It is creepily pachydermic.
Cody Carroll, one of the stars of Food Network’s Cajun Aces, presses a beer into my hand. Minutes later, noticing my other hand is also empty, he hands me another. We watched the pig cook, its skin crisping up and the fat dripping into the fire with a hiss, for a few minutes before moving on to the other side of the party, where a bunch of barnacle-covered monster Gulf oysters have emerged from a purple cooler. They are briny and cool, and only a little less impressive—flabbier and muddier—than the perfect Pacific Northwest specimens I’m used to. Then again, I’ve never seen anyone shucking oysters of any kind at a tailgate.
Before I can eat my weight in bivalves, I’m dragged away. Ducote wants to hit a party hosted by the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, Billy Nungesser. It’s another catered one, so I skip the gumbo and jambalaya—there’s no way these chafing-pan versions will rival what I sampled earlier, scraped from oil-drum-sized black pots. Instead, I take a little bit of the gator and a slice of king cake. It’s out of season, but even out-of-season king cake in Louisiana is better than any version of the colorfully frosted, layered brioche that I can get in Seattle. Just as I finish, I meet our host, the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana himself. He presses his business card into my now-sticky paw and calls it a “get-out-of-jail-free-card.” I promise to try not to need it. I hear him say the same thing to someone else minutes later and shudder at the thought of how many times he’s used that joke.
It’s almost 4 PM and I am beginning to tire. It’s time to address one of the primary problem with an all-day, outdoor party: I desperately have to pee and the lines at the few-and-far-between port-o-potties stretch down the road. Ducote, ever my trusty guide, directs me to a nearby building that he knows has open bathrooms. “This one’s closed,” a security guard at the first door explains—someone has already puked in there. She points me to the stairs to the second floor. There, I’m again blocked, this time by a nearly-passed-out girl and her doting friends. Rather than interrupt, I head up another flight. On the third floor, the bathroom is broken. By the time I reach the fourth floor, I’m considering peeing in a corner. Thankfully, the bathroom is clean, quiet, and I’m able to sit for the first time in nearly nine hours. It’s wonderful.
Revitalized, I head to the next party, where everything but the cutlery is deep-fried. Fried fish, fried okra, fried jalapeños, fried shrimp, fried chicken, and French fries. There’s also noodles with sausage. I sample one of every (fried) thing. The jalapeños and okra are the easy winners, which pleases the guy next to me. He’s a vegetarian and says that on game days, he mostly lives on brownies and liquor.
The Alabama band goes by and everyone starts yelling. I yell along with them, because while I have no particular ties to either team, I appreciate the motto offered by another person at the party: If you can’t root for LSU, root for chaos.
And chaos it is at the next stop. The host passes a tray of Fireball shots, chants break out randomly, and a plane flies overhead pulling a banner that says, “Free Devon White,” the LSU player suspended for the first half of the game for an illegal hit. I pass on the Fireball because I’m an old and have now been drinking and eating for ten straight hours. Also because someone walks by and they smell like they’ve shit themselves, which sort of kills my appetite.
A party across the street has set up a tiger-shaped metal seesaw for kids to play on. I watch two drunk, fully-adult women try and fail to sit on it. Then I watch a very drunk old man attempt to seesaw on his own before he, too, falls off, bringing the whole thing down on himself. It’s less than an hour until game time and most of the tailgate parties are petering out as the truly wasted take themselves home and the people with four hours of football game ahead of them start to move toward the stadium.
Ducote wants to stop back off at the Lieutenant Governor’s party. We end up there about 15 minutes before the game starts. While we’re waiting to chat with a U.S. Senator, another guy asks if we want to go onto the field. We have to hurry, he says, and suddenly we’re following him—speed-walking across the street, weaving through the crowds, flashing passes as we duck into the tunnel, before coming out on the other side right on the field.
“Welcome To Death Valley,” glow the golden letters in the twilight. The players, larger than they ever seem on television, warm up right in front of me. My jaw drops and all of the rushing around of the last 20 minutes fades away. As the first few chords of Louisiana Saturday Night boom over the loudspeaker, I realize that the final remnant of my 12-hour feast—other than a satiation that stretches well into the next afternoon—is the shrimp po’boy that I’m still clutching in one hand.