This summer, I, like many, depended on outdoor hangouts with friends to fulfill my need for socialization. Come fall, I watched Vancouver’s last warm days wane with dismay. Park grass isn’t as pleasant to sit on in November as it is in July. Loath to give up the al fresco socializing that was keeping me sane, I wondered: Isn’t there some kind of outdoor thing that can be done comfortably in the colder months? Something more festive than a hike, more conducive to conversation than a jog? I’d never tailgated in my life, but the more I thought about it, the more tailgating seemed like the ideal gathering – a kind of all-seasons pandemic picnic. All you need is to find an empty space, set up chairs as far apart as you like, bring your own food and hot drinks, and, should the weather become inclement, your vehicles stand by for a hasty retreat. Was I missing anything?
Oh right, sports. Can a person hold an orthodox tailgate without the organizing principle of an athletic event? To answer this, I called Craig Renfro, editor in chief of Tailgater magazine, a print and web publication he’s helmed from his home of Fort Worth, Tex., for going on 15 years.
“Sometimes, people will say, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I’ll tell them, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, well we don’t really watch sports,’” Renfro says. “And I’ll go, ‘Do you have people over for just a backyard barbecue, or friends and family over to watch the Academy Awards or the Emmys? Well, you’re doing the same thing!’ Tailgating doesn’t have to centre around sports. Anything that gets you outdoors with friends and family, and you’re tailgating in my book.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Tailgater has adjusted its editorial content to reflect that most sports events were cancelled, which has significantly curtailed traditional, stadium parking-lot tailgating. Renfro has been focusing more on “homegating” – essentially entertaining at home – but gave his blessing to my rudderless parking lot hangout idea, sharing some tips for cold weather tailgating, too.
“You want to set up some type of barrier to the elements, a pop-up tent, tarps you tie off with rope or bungee cords, anything to keep the rain or wind out is key,” he says. “There’s so many neat items out there you can bring to your tailgate, they have these portable electric heaters, portable fire pits. It isn’t a necessity, but it certainly makes the ambiance a lot better because you’ll have people gathering around to keep warm. And I always tell people, when it’s cold, your body needs to move so you’re not just shaking and shivering. I recommend bringing a football to toss, if you have any games like cornhole or ring toss, anything just to keep active and get the blood flowing is certainly a good idea.”
While it’s certainly wise to prepare for harsh weather, October in Vancouver isn’t quite cold enough to warrant exploring tailgating shelters, and Dr. John Varty, a university professor who has partied in parking lots for events such as the Yale-Harvard annual football game in Boston and a Nascar race in Ann Arbor, Mich., assures me that the rest of Canada understands how to be outside far better than I do, anyway.
“I used to live in Calgary, we’d tailgate sometimes in -35 weather,” he says. “I’ve seen ice fishing shacks rigged up on the back of trucks. Most of my friends who tailgate are kind of country boys, and they tend to have both the ingenuity and the access to tools to rig up something effective in the backs of their trucks,” he says.
I began my tailgate picnic planning by inviting friends to a big North Vancouver parking lot on a Saturday afternoon. I found a recipe for vegan chili, and spent some time Googling the history of tailgating (did you know historians consider the festive atmosphere that preceded political executions during France’s Reign of Terror to be a kind of proto-tailgating? And that people in Manassas, Va., brought sack lunches to watch the kick off battle of the American Civil War?).
When the day came, I packed a tote with all-dressed chips and grabbed a couple of cushions I’d deemed too ugly for the couch. Max, my boyfriend, and I threw some folding chairs and a blanket into the back of his 2006 Acura, filled our thermoses with hot tea, and were off.
The tailgate, I am pleased to report, was a success. Our group of seven ate, talked and the mild day presented us with no unpleasant elements to contend with. It was decided on the spot that the 11-month-old in attendance would have a tailgate first birthday party in a few weeks. The only thing I was left wondering was: Is a tailgate truly something you can do with your whole family? Would a person in their seventh or eighth decade find this as fun as I did?
Evelyn Gramolini is the chairperson of the upper Fraser Valley Red Hat Society, a social club for women over 50, although the average age of its members is around 75. According to her, the Red Hats have been tailgating for months. “We have done that, where we’ve gone to the parking lot, drove our cars in, set up our chair, and everybody brought their own tea cup,” she tells me. “Initially, whoever was organizing that day would bring food, squares or muffins, and pass them around. It was really just a get together, at least to say ‘hello’ and make sure everybody was in contact.”
Gramolini doesn’t think they’ll be doing much tailgating when it’s very cold, but even pulling up someplace for a quick chat through your car window is a way for anyone with access to a vehicle to see friendly faces over the winter months. It doesn’t need to be elaborate to be a tailgate.
The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.