The idea behind a tailgate picnic is to make bearable something that is essentially a dreadful idea. Spending a bone-chilling afternoon sitting out on some cold bleachers watching 22 fine young men bashing each other to bits is certainly nobody's idea of a good time. Nonetheless, there's a good chance that the family cook will get involved in a tailgate picnic at some point, as either mate or mother to fan or football player.
If you are forcing guests to go to a football game, you should be pulling out all the stops on the lunch in order to make the trip worthwhile for them. Heaven knows, the family cook is always looking for ways to make things easier on the feeding front, but the tailgate picnic is not the place to hold back. For one thing, you owe these people an apology for dragging them out there. And for another, there's always competition -- people poking around to see what other people have brought.
Fortunately, a tailgate picnic is much easier to be elaborate about than your basic summer picnic in a basket. Because the food and serving dishes needn't be hand-carried, you can use all sorts of heavy things and bulky containers -- coolers, thermoses, real plates and glasses, even silver servingware if the neighborhood is safe enough to leave it in the car during the game.
On the other hand, while the basic summer picnic is eaten sitting down, the tailgate picnic is eaten standing up. So the foods should all be finger and fork-or-spoon food; nothing that requires a lap.
Tailgate food must always be hearty. Nobody wants to drive all the way out to some cold field to eat a carrot stick standing up. In cold weather, people need serious food to keep their metabolisms running enough to keep them warm, and if they don't, they think they do. Cuisine minceur does not belong at a tailgate picnic.
A tailgate picnic should always begin with a warm, alcoholic beverage from a thermos. It is not natural for people to eat standing up in the cold, and so they need a little something to get them over this awkwardness. The drink should not be so strong as to paralyze them, since an arduous afternoon is ahead, but just enough to lighten them up and get them in the right mood. Consomme' mixed with sherry is the most polite of these beginners; bouillon with vodka is another possibility; and so is the soothing Stadium Smoothie below.
During the drinking, you should be setting out your wooden boards with country pa te' and cheese, since good tailgate picnics always have appetizers. Caviar is okay for a professional or Ivy League game but not at a small, small private school. They might ask you to donate a gym.
With the cheese-based Pizza Rustica on today's menu, I'd have a vegetable appetizer -- mushrooms a la grecque, or a can of stuffed leaves nicely speared with fancy toothpicks.
The main courses can be soups or stews from a gallon thermos ladled into Styrofoam bowls. (But for heaven's sake, use real spoons.) Black bean with sherry is warming as would be a cheese soup, chili, bouillabaisse, or a spicy gumbo. If there is soup, there should also be a hearty dry course -- slices of a 10-foot hero, little meat or spinach pies, saucisson en crou te or Scotch eggs, which are hard cooked and covered with sausage meat. There should be a vegetable side dish, too -- three-bean salad, hot slaw, or oranges vinaigrette. And, finally, two desserts. One should be baked and terribly rich, like a linzer torte, rugged brownies or the very seasonal pumpkin bars below. The other dessert should be fruity -- pears and apples with brie or blue cheese.
Once the family cook has proven that she can throw a tailgate picnic with the best of them, she ought to get to go home and sleep the afternoon away. But alas, life is not fair. Off to the fray. Brrrr. STADIUM SMOOTHIES (Makes 10 cups) 2 quarts apple cider 2 cinnamon sticks 8 whole cloves 3 tablespoons sugar 2 1/2 cups light rum
Heat cider, cinnamon sticks, cloves and sugar to boil. Remove from heat and let steep for 1 to 2 hours. Add rum, reheat until warm and pour into thermos. MUSHROOMS A LA GREQUE (4 servings) 3 tomatoes, chopped 2 cups white wine 3/4 pound mushrooms 1 bay leaf 1 tablespoon olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Place tomatoes in a 2-quart casserole and add wine. Cook over low heat 20 to 25 minutes. Strain. Add mushrooms, bay leaf and olive oil. Cook 30 minutes over low heat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve cold. PIZZA RUSTICA (4 servings) 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dish and board 2 tablespoons sugar 3 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for dish 7 tablespoons chilled lard, cut into small pieces 3 egg yolks 4 whole eggs 1 cup part-skim ricotta 1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded (use a food processor or cheese grater) 1/4 pound provolone cheese, diced 1/4 pound salami or prosciutto, diced 1/2 cup pecorino cheese, grated 1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, chopped Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the dough: Sift together the flour and sugar. Cut in the butter and lard with a fork or pastry cutter and blend until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal. (You may also use a food processor.) Stir in the egg yolks and 1 whole egg until just mixed. Mold into a ball and chill for 1 hour.
Butter and flour a 1 1/2-quart souffle' dish. Divide the dough into two parts, one slightly larger than the other. Roll out the larger part on a floured board. Fold the dough into quarters and transfer it gently to the souffle' dish, unfolding and arranging it to fit against the bottom and partway up the sides of the dish.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the remaining 3 eggs, the ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, salami or prosciutto, grated pecorino, parsley, salt and pepper. Turn the filling out onto the bottom crust.
Roll out the remaining dough to form the top crust. Press the crust down at the edges to seal well. Bake the pizza in a 375-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Serve at room temperature. It will keep for 24 hours without refrigeration.
From "The Best of Southern Italian Cooking" by J.C. Grasso, Barron's, $15.95 PUMPKIN BARS (Makes 36 bars) 4 eggs 1 cup salad oil 1 cup sugar 15-ounce can pumpkin 2 cups flour plus extra for pan 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Butter for pan
Cream cheese icing: 6-ounce package cream cheese 3/4 stick butter 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 tablespoon cream or milk 4 cups confectioners' sugar
Mix eggs, oil, sugar and pumpkin in large bowl. Sift remaining ingredients and stir; add to the egg-pumpkin mixture. Mix well and pour into a greased and floured 12-by-18-by-1-inch pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
Beat cheese, butter, vanilla and cream together until soft. Add confectioners' sugar to spreading consistency.