A Saints pre-game party is half the fun.
Most tailgaters have been doing it for years—it's become a tradition that starts every August.
Everyone knows how much New Orleans loves a party. Well, New Orleans Saints' fans take that to the next level on game day in the form of pre-game tailgating. On any given game day, all around the streets of the Superdome, groups of fans set up their own little party, ready to have a good time and support the Saints. People come out every week, no matter how the Saints are playing. Some people stop by a tailgate for an hour before the game, and some stay all day. Ryne Hancock sees it as "a tune-up before you go into the Dome. You get your bites and drinks, meet people, and then roll on over to the Dome."
Tailgating can take a multitude of shapes from a small, casual set up to a more elaborate one with sofas, big-screen TVs, tents, custom grills, and professional sound systems. Jim Sylve says, "What we do in New Orleans is use the whole neighborhood as a tailgate spot. Right off of Canal Street, people are on their porch having a tailgate party. You walk down Poydras, and people find a spot of grass on the neutral ground, and that's their tailgate." Of their spot, Sylve says, "It's not very glamorous—it's outside industrial sheds with tires laying around, but they found a spot with a shady tree, and people use what's there—it's tailgating in its purest form. I don't know if it's like this everywhere, but, here, anybody's welcome.
Sylve's been tailgating with this same group, founded by his friend, John Robinson, since just after Katrina. Robinson says, "the best part of tailgating for me is the preparation—figuring out the menu for the tailgate, loading the trailers, touching up the port-o-lets, and getting down there the night before the set up, put on a little music, and letting the fun begin the night before."
Much like party food, tailgate food has its own identity, and it's an important part of the tailgate. Everyone has their favorites. Hancock's favorite tailgate food? "I would have to say wings. I love me a good wing," he says.
Allen Keller's favorite is red beans. "I personally cook a pot of red beans for every tailgate. I start them on Saturday evening and slow cook them until Sunday morning—the best."
Indeed, tailgate food includes some of the best New Orleans has to offer. You'll find giant pots of jambalaya or gumbo simmering on game day. A rack of ribs or steaks might be on the menu. Food cooked by people who know what they're doing, and you best believe, it's going to be delicious, plentiful, and seasoned right. Sylve adds that there's also Jello shots—"a lot of Jello shots."
Along with the food, drink, and music, camaraderie is the heart of a tailgate experience. The mood is always high and everybody's friendly. It's a party, after all, a New Orleans' party, so you know what that means. Friends gather to hang out, and if you were a stranger before, you aren't anymore—not on this day and not in this city. If you're on the opposing team, that's alright too. Sylve says of people walking by in opposing teams' jerseys, "We might razz 'em a little, in fun, but we always offer them something to eat or drink."
The joy of people sharing the experience of a tailgate party is really something unique. It's always about the people. Keller says, "There's nothing better than enjoying your favorite team with good people: the fun, the laughs, the conversations, the dancing, the comradery. A good tailgate begins and ends with the people." Robinson feels the same and adds, "Matter of fact, I consider everyone family."
Tailgates are more than just parties though. People have made lifelong friendships and had experiences they never would have anywhere else. Sylve notes, "I've been able to meet a lot of people—fellow New Orleanians—that I might never have met. I've seen people's kids grow up over the years at the tailgate."
Community outreach has also been a result of Saints tailgating. Keller founded the mutual aid group #TailgateTogether after bringing tailgate leftovers to the houseless community in the area after games. As it grew, he says, there was "something about feeding the unhoused our leftovers that didn't feel right to me, so we started cooking them separate, fresh meals." Then they began cooking more than just on game day and now Keller, along with Katherine Seals, serves the houseless community year-round through the efforts of #TailgateTogether.
Most would agree that a New Orleans tailgate is truly unique. Keller says, "It's different here simply because New Orleans is different. There's no other city in the world like New Orleans, and there's no other tailgate like a Saints tailgate." Sylve adds, "It's a communal feeling of people of all ages rallying around the Saints, NOLA music, good food, and then everyone walks in unison to the Superdome when it's time. The whole thing is like church. It's an event."
The Saints have had their ups and downs but there's no denying that they have some of the loudest, most passionate fans in the world, so it should come as no surprise that they know how to tailgate. If you've never been, throw on your black and gold on game day, pick up a box of chicken to share, and head down early to the areas around the Superdome. In no time flat, you'll get yourself a delicious bowl of red beans or a Jello shot, dance to whatever tunes the DJ's spinning, and head to the Dome with your new best friends and maybe a new tradition to boot.