Food & Drink

The Best Tailgating Foods of All Time

Hot dogs
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Webster's defines "tailgate" as "a board or gate at the rear of a vehicle that can be removed or let down (as for loading)," or as "a jazz trombone style marked by much use of slides to and from long sustained tones."

Webster's, clearly, does not know how to get down. Tailgating, as you and I know, is the semi-sacred art of eating and drinking as much as humanly possible before a sporting event, commonly in the parking lot outside a stadium. You know what you'll be sipping (alcohol, always alcohol), but choosing the perfect tailgate food is not as simple. You want the best, right? Well, here you go: the best tailgating foods of all time.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

23. Salads... I guess

I have to include one vegan-friendly, gluten-lacking option in here, if only to appease the finicky masses. Of course, you can add French fries to this equation. We call that a Pittsburgh salad.

22. Potato salad 

You know what? Just swap your regular salad for a potato salad, then you won't have to worry about the French fry part. 

21. Actually, just French fries

You know what? Why don't we skip the lettuce and the pretenses and just go with an extra large bucket of French fries, and just nix the whole salad part. Deal? Deal. 

Shutterstock/Habib Sajid

20. Poutine

And if you're already digging into French fries, why not opt to upgrade to Canadian nachos? While not the most traditional of all tailgating food, consider eating it before Raptors, Blue Jays, or pretty much any hockey game. And it certainly might come in handy for the Canada-adjacent Buffalo Bills... I have to assume the fans in the parking lot of New Era Field might need to line their stomachs. For obvious reasons

19. Bacon-wrapped scallops

Firstly, only a gauche-ass rube would choose to wrap shrimp in bacon in lieu of scallops, which are basically donuts of the sea. Secondly, these bacon-wrapped scallops -- while objectively delicious -- are just a little bit bougie and high maintenance. That's not what you want whilst eating in a parking lot.

18. Otter Pops

You might call these freeze-pops, or icy pops, or "those popsicle tubes that come in 100 packs at Costco and rip open your lips and gums when you try to open them with your mouth." Either way, they are cheap, easy to store (in a cooler, obviously) and one of the most underrated snacks on this or any planet. But, it's a warm-weather specialty, making it inapplicable in most of the United States for the greater part of the year. Also, my mouth still has scar tissue from the Blue Raspberry Incident of '97.

Breakfast sandwich
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

17. Breakfast sandwiches

No. 17, like Otter Pops before it, is a victim of circumstance. No one enjoys a BEC with SP& K (Bacon, egg, and cheese with salt, pepper, and ketchup) more than I do. And for football games that start at 1pm, breakfast food is the go-to. I think it's more than OK to down traditional "morning food" at any point during the day, but there's always a contingency of people who just refuse to eat breakfast food past the crack of noon. Unfortunately, I still have to take their preferences into consideration.

16. Cheese plate

Like any self-serving millennial worth his artisanal sea salt, I dig a good cheese plate. And for practicality purposes, smoked meats and cheese travel well and aren't messy. They also add an air of elegance to your back lot shenanigans. Which simultaneously makes me like cheese plates more... and less.

15. Last night's pizza

We all know that the only thing better than fresh pizza right out of the oven is cold pizza when you wake up hungover and pants-less and reeking of cheap beer and for some reason lighter fluid. So, if you are in a rush to get to the lot before game time -- because, let's say you wake up hungover and pants-less and reeking of cheap beer and for some reason lighter fluid -- cold pizza is certainly an option. Maybe your only option. Get it together, man.

Mac & Cheese
Cole Saladinio/Thrillist

14. Mac & cheese

Mac & cheese is excellent, both in the literal sense (meaning, mac & cheese contains excellence) and the Wayne's World definition (meaning, mac & cheese is rad). But in its default state, mac & cheese doesn't have meat in it -- not rad! With bacon, it's top-five.

13.  Something with a foul name that your grandpa used to make

For example, Kermit fingers, which are jalapeños wrapped in bacon and the punchline to the setup: "What's long, green, and smells like pork?" Sports and nostalgia go hand in hand. So, it's good to throw the old heads a bone -- or in this case, a Kermit finger -- every now and then.

12. Pulled pork

If we're going purely by taste (or, as I like to call it, the "deliciousity-metric"), this would be higher. No question. But in order to make pulled pork in a parking lot, you need time, energy (both electricity and effort), and a slow cooker. Three things you don't want to mess with while cracking various cold ones open with the boys/girls. Too hard!

11. Turducken

This, for the uninformed, is John Madden's greatest non-videogame contribution to the football world (coaching the Raiders doesn't count): a horrifically appealing pastiche of poultry, a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken. It's like a Russian doll of cholesterol. This should be higher, but it's super impractical. And also just like... really bad for you.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

10. Nachos

Nachos are a classic! But, for every nacho you consume, you raise the probability of ruining your fresh new authentic sportsball jersey by at least 34%. And there's no easier way to look like a big, fat, intoxicated slob than having a football jersey laced in blotches of melted orange cheese.

9. Cookies and/or brownies

You might be saying to your screen: "What is this, a tailgate or a bake sale?!" Firstly, you are talking to yourself, weirdo. Secondly, do you know why there's hardly ever any leftover cookies and/or brownies at public events, tailgates or otherwise? Because they practically get inhaled. Everyone loves 'em.

8. Party subs

Now we are getting to the sweet center of tailgating bliss. Party subs are just the best. They are the stretch-limos of sandwiches. But they are hard to travel with and very unruly. Also, they lose some clout because you don't actually make them in the parking lot. And you will almost certainly be forced to share.

Dave Baldwin/Thrillist

7. Burgers

You might think this is a little low for the burger, but... it's not that burgers aren't good tailgating food, it's just that there are so many tailgating foods that are better, it just can't go all the way to the top. Consider burgers the Kansas City Chiefs of this list.

6. Chili

Chili and chili-based dishes are, of course, a tailgating essential. But, in order to procure it, you first must listen to the chili-provider-in-question give a bloated speech about "his special family recipe," "the inherent value of using black beans over pinto," and how "a little bit of their soul is encapsulated in every bite." It's bullshit. And it sucks the fun out of fans faster than a pick-six in OT.

5. Wings

Wings have everything a perfect tailgate food needs: it's meat, you eat it with your hands, it can be the base for a limitless variety of sauces, and of course, you can smoke 'em. But, there's literally nothing worse than a backseat filled with the skeletons of gnawed-on wings the morning after a big game. Or even a medium-sized game. The point is: they can get super gross, after the fact.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

4. Ribs

See above. But, the bones are a little less gross.

3. Brats

Brats are, effectively, upscale hot dogs. Which is good. You can also soak them in beer before you cook them. Which is very, very good. Overall, a solid showing. Extra points because you can comfortably eat these wieners, sans bun. 

2. Chips and dip

Yea, it's basic. Yes, it violates several guidelines I faulted earlier options for (pre-made, no-meat, messy). But it's such a core tenet of snacking, and an overwhelmingly potent crowd-pleaser. Even going through the motions of dipping and eating these chips is cathartic, and gives you a reliable activity to do with your hands. If you are anything like me, you never know what to do with your hands.

Hot dogs
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

1. Hot dogs

Consider the hot dog. Hand-held. An ideal vessel for any number of toppings. Includes meat. No risk of being asked to share. Goes down easy. Pairs well with beer. Can contain most of the major food groups, if properly stacked. Almost effortless to make. Simple to transport. Not pretentious. Hard to screw up. Easy to love. The hot dog. It is what it is. The perfect tailgating food.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. His favorite tailgate song is "Unchained Melody." Follow him: @wilfulton