Joe Cahn has likely been to more football stadiums than most players. It’s a good bet he has eaten in more stadium parking lots than players and fans combined.
Cahn is the self-described Commissioner of Tailgating. After selling the New Orleans cooking school he owned, Cahn took to the road during the 1996 NFL season as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the Super Bowl in his hometown at the end of the season. He liked it so much, he kept doing it.
In the 16 seasons he has been traveling to tailgate parties, Cahn, 63, estimates he has clocked more than 800,000 miles and visited some 800 venues. He was at the last Redskins game at RFK. He’ll be at the Redskins-49ers game this Sunday at FedExField.
Smoke Signals asked “The Commish,” as he calls himself, about the changes he’s seen in tailgating, the food he’s eaten and tips he can provide. Edited excerpts follow.
Smoke Signals: Why do you do this?
Joe Cahn: I get to see the country. Right now, the leaves are changing in Indiana, and it’s gorgeous and mesmerizing. I’ll be in Seattle in a couple weeks, then Miami later in the year. From sea to shining sea, I get to see, and get to know, this great country.
Tailgating is the last great American neighborhood. I think it is the new block party. Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t change my lifestyle. I get to eat the food of America.
SS: How do you afford it?
JC: I get sponsors. Coca-Cola. Bull’s-Eye [barbecue sauce]. One of the best was Pepcid AC. Right now, I’m involved with the [Aluminum Association’s] Can Crusade, which is about promoting recycling and safety.
I also use my own money. It’s actually not very expensive. There’s gas for the RV, of course. I’m spending very little money on food. I eat very well on the weekends, then get food to take on the road through the week.
SS: What sticks out as the best tailgating food you’ve had?
JC: Anything given to me. I really mean that. Anyone who cooks knows what tastes good to them.
’Course, going to Kansas City, I’ll get some great barbecue. In St. Louis, I’ll get some great Italian food. I had a couple of [chicken] thighs in Tennessee that were amazing. I also had some incredible ribs and brisket there, too. The Cuban pig in Miami, the salmon in Seattle, the lobsters caught the day before in New England. Incredible.
I was at a Giants game, and there are these three guys that do over-the-top cooking. They start with hot dogs and then do unbelievable stuff.
SS: Like what?
JC: They do a poached salmon with a reduction dill sauce, some pot stickers...with two sauces. They’ll do a tenderloin in a ginger marinade that is just remarkable. It’s dish after dish after dish. A Chilean sea bass ravioli. It’s amazing.
SS: You’re probably seen a lot of changes in equipment.
JC: It used to be you came out in a pickup truck with a grill. Now you have pop-up grills that you can put in a Mini Cooper. There’s a guy with a converted school bus. He has three grills and a full electric stove with a glass top and a giant grill. You don’t see a lot of full household stoves. I’ve seen stoves converted to propane. His was electric. They use a generator. His grill was about a 48-inch grill or something.
There’s a person I’ll see in San Diego in two weeks who has a ’57 Chevy station wagon, chopped into one of the best tailgating kitchens. On the back, he has a grill and deep fryer. He does some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. In Detroit, a couple years ago, a guy parks, digs a hole, puts the charcoal in the hole, puts a grill over the coals and cooks burgers and dogs. He takes off the grill, puts out the fire and goes to the game.
You see everything.
SS: You’re known for your jambalaya. What else do you cook?
JC: I don’t cook anymore. I say, “Does Roger Goodell [commissioner of the NFL] play football?” No, he’s the commissioner of football. I’m the commissioner of tailgating. I go around and talk to people.
Tailgating is a community. Walking around the parking lot, I say it is like thousands of backyards with no privacy fences.
SS: What are your top tailgating tips?
JC: No. 1: Get there early. You get the better spots, and you don’t have to hurry when setting up. You can take your time. Most NFL stadiums open up four hours before game time.
No. 2: Wear your colors. You’re not going to a concert or a church service, although there is a lot of praying going on. Be a participant, not just an observer.
No. 3: Keep it simple. One of the things we as food people do is, when friends are coming over, we go overboard. We’re going to try to outdo ourselves. Keep it simple. Enjoy the party. And bring more than you think you need. Making new friends is one of those great situations about tailgating.
No. 4: Do all your prep work at home. Don’t chop and dice at the parking lot; don’t bring work to the stadium.
No. 5: Always leave the area better than you found it. Have two trash bags — one for trash and one for recycling. We really need to do a better job recycling.