Around 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, some 30 minutes after the scheduled kickoff of Howard University’s homecoming game with Morgan State, a party busted out in the parking lot across Georgia Avenue NW from the school. A deejay was spinning V.I.C.’s “Wobble” as a dozen or so people turned the asphalt into an outdoor dance floor, putting their backfields in motion for the hip-shaking hustle that accompanies the song. One of the line dancers was sporting an apron and carrying a pair of meat tongs.
This was tailgating, HU-style, where the gridiron play is almost secondary to the party. Few here on this gently sloping lot appeared to have a radio tuned to the game — or even a smartphone in hand obsessively searching for scoreboard updates. This was tailgating as entertainment in its own right, a weekend homecoming reunion focused on old college friendships and lots of tasty homemade food.
Howard is late to the tailgating game, explained Keith Benn, a former vice president of the school’s alumni association. As the Kennett Square, Pa., resident stood near his pot of seafood boil — a pungent, Louisiana-style mixture of boiled red potatoes, corn on the cob, kielbasa, hard-cooked eggs and shrimp — he said that Howard president Sidney A. Ribeau introduced tailgating not long after the administrator took over the school in 2008. The first tailgate party attracted perhaps 12 people, Benn noted, but “it’s been growing every year.”
For the homecoming contest — the only game this season in which Howard is allowing tailgating — more than a dozen pop-up tents were set up, serving fare beyond the standard burgers and dogs grilled in a Weber kettle. Hungry alumni, students or even curious passersby could sample widely from tables stacked with Louisiana gumbo, stuffed jalapenos wrapped in bacon, smoked porgy caught off the Massachusetts coast, fiery jerk chicken, slow-smoked bone-in pork shoulder, barbecued pork ribs rubbed with at least five seasonings, and, in apparent violation of the school’s tailgating rules prohibiting portable fryers, thin fillets of fried whiting and fried turkeys. It was a picnic-eaters’ paradise.
Howard’s pre-game (not to mention mid-game and post-game) smorgasbord has flourished so quickly that it captured the attention of Southern Living, which named the school’s tailgating scene among the South’s 20 best. The magazine’s editors placed Howard’s tailgate among the “style setters,” noting the student body “sports the styles that have earned students mentions on best-dressed lists.” Howard’s fashion sense, alas, didn’t help the school win Southern Living’s vote for best tailgate: Clemson University took top honors, followed by the University of Mississippi in the No. 2 spot.
Perhaps it’s the bias of a reporter focused on food, not fashion, but Howard’s saliva-inducing selection of parking-lot comestibles was more tantalizing than the eye-candy collection of skin-tight leggings, sagging jeans, sideways ball caps, loose-fitting jerseys, T-shirts, leopard-print pants and spiky heels. All you had to do was wander over to the tables near the tent decorated with New Orleans Saints banners and second-line parade parasols: It was virtually an open-air Louisiana kitchen.
Interestingly enough, no one working the Louisiana-themed space was a Howard grad. The tent was, essentially, an extension of the annual (and massive) crawfish boil that Louisiana natives Umekki and Lance Curry host every Memorial Day weekend at the District Yacht Club. The couple was joined by friends and/or fellow Pelican State transplants such as Clinton resident Tony Harkley (who was manning the three-basket fryer filled with peanut oil for that crispy fried fish), Craig Jones of Laurel (who developed the canyon-deep flavors of his seafood-and-sausage gumbo without a lick of roux) and part-time Logan Circle resident Phillip Jones (whose dry-rubbed baby-back ribs were practically served blackened-style, a la Paul Prudhomme, slow-smoked with layers of garlic powder, black pepper, Hungarian sweet paprika, cumin and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning).
These Louisiana interlopers swear they weren’t trying to upstage their mid-Atlantic peers in the other tents. “We like to tailgate,” said Lance Curry, a native of Alexandria, La., northwest of New Orleans, who paid $200 for the privilege of serving free food to the crowd. “We like to get together. We love cooking our home dishes.”
Not that gastronomic obsessions are exclusive to those from Louisiana. Washington resident Brent Hughes is a Howard electrical engineering graduate who has developed a taste for cooking. He has taken several courses at L’Academie de Cuisine and was putting his knowledge to the test on a patch of asphalt near the Georgia Avenue side of the parking lot. He was standing duty over a pair of two-tiered smokers, one filled with racks of untrimmed spare ribs and the other crowded with a small flock of chicken wings. He had devised his own rub and marinade for the meats, the former of which incorporated a spice rack of flavors, including cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne, thyme and parsley. He added even more spices to his cough-inducing jerk rub.
If Hughes’s wings weren’t fiery enough, tailgaters could add a splash or two from one of Lula B’s sauces, which Damien Noble was proudly selling from a table. (The sauces are also available at area Wegmans.) Noble is the chief executive of Bowie-based Lula B’s Sauce and Seasonings, named after his mother, Lula Beatrice Winslow Noble, who started making sauces as a girl during the Great Depression. They’re made with real fruit, Noble boasted. “If you see something floating in there,” he deadpanned, “it’s not a bug.”
Smoke was, without question, the primary ingredient at the Howard tailgate. It hovered in the air, adding a distinct, woodsy aroma to all those cutting-edge fashions in the parking lot. It also cooked and flavored the three types of fish prepared by Sherman Addison, a retiree from Howard University Hospital. Addison adopted a lean approach with his fish, marinating them in lemon juice and lemon-pepper seasonings before smoking them over charcoal and soaked hickory chips; it was a technique that favored the meaty, almost nutty flavors of rainbow trout, whose rustic smokiness was balanced with a kiss of clean, light citrus.
Howard alumnus Robert Winters was applying smoke with a heavier hand over at his stretch of parking lot. He was using hickory and maple chips and chunks to slow-smoke, among other meaty bites, a boulder-size hunk of bone-in pork shoulder. He was fighting the clock. Howard University cuts off tailgating an hour after the game ends. The pitmaster was looking to pull his pork off the smoker around 5 p.m., which would roughly coincide with the school’s official deadline for the party.
Winters wasn’t worried. It was as if he knew the university — the same one that had already looked the other way over the use of fryers in the lot — would never dare shut down his pending pork feast.
“Trust me,” he said with an air of certainty. “After the game, they’ll all be over here.”