Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2018 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Patty Huhta of Elk Rapids attended Michigan State University, So did her parents. And sister. And her sister’s kids. And one of her own kids, plus another who is likely heading there next year.
They also happen to love football — MSU football in particular. So about 25 years ago, they started tailgating on home game Saturdays in East Lansing.
It started small.
“It used to be my parents and a few other friends and us before kids,” Huhta said. “We would seriously just do a tailgate, where you’d put the tailgate down on the back of the SUV or whatever and just have some snacks out there.
“It’s kind of slowly grown from there.”
That is an understatement. Consider the production they call a tailgate today: a large tent with sides, tables and chairs in Spartan decor, TV with satellite dish, heater, generator ... even a fire pit and a recliner.
“Everybody had to fight for the premium spot for the recliner,” Huhta laughed.
They bring games — cornhole, Kan Jam and others. And there’s food. Lots of food.
Huhta works in the culinary program at Northwestern Michigan College, and brings her A-game, which includes knowledge of the best way to set up a buffet (starches first, more expensive things like meat later). Others in the group, which can number as many as 30 to 40 some days, also like to cook.
For each game, they decide on a theme, and that dictates the menu. Some of them have Upper Peninsula roots, so one time it was a Yooper theme: mini pasties, Vollwerth’s hot dogs from Hancock, Trenary Toast and beer from the Keweenaw Peninsula and Marquette. Other themes have included Margaritaville, Mexican and a chili cook-off.
They set up a bar with snacks. Then it’s on to the food. They have a grill, and new this year, a 36-inch griddle they’ll fire up with propane to prepare lunch or dinner. For noon games, they do breakfast, too.
“There’s nothing like being on a college campus on a football Saturday at a big-time Division I school — the electricity and excitement that everybody is there just enjoying themselves and all the other tailgates around you,” Huhta said. “You kind of feel like one big family.”
“... We always try to say we’re going to downscale a little bit, but we don’t seem to know how to do that.”
And other than the game, food is the biggest draw, Huhta said. They rarely do sandwiches, finding the group prefers more substantial provisions: chilis, pot roast, hot dogs and burgers, pulled pork sliders — often things they can partially or completely do in advance and reheat on the spot.
“For our breakfast burritos, we fill them ahead of time,” Huhta said. “In the morning, we bake them off at my sister’s (who lives near East Lansing), keep them warm and get them to the tailgate and put them in chafers.”
Some people have specialty dishes: her husband does a whitefish dip, her mom —- Sharon Cron of Northport — makes a homemade slaw with cilantro and her sister prepares a chicken and dumpling soup that everybody likes.
Travis Murdock didn’t attend the University of Michigan. But that hasn’t stopped him from being a rabid Wolverines football fan since childhood.
“I grew up doing it (loving U-M football),” says Murdock, a sales representative for Superior Foods Company who lives in Traverse City. “My mom was a Spartan fan, my dad was a Michigan fan, my sister became a Spartan fan and I became a Michigan fan.”
He tailgates every time he can, weather permitting, often with his wife and the family of his good friend, Chris Hoffman, who owns the Towne Plaza restaurant in Traverse City. Murdock also has culinary training, so food plays no small part in the day’s activities. It also helps that both have access to products from food distributors.
Sometimes they feed a small group. Other times, it might be 20 to 30, depending on who shows up.
Like Huhta’s family, they take quite a bit of paraphernalia: a Michigan tent, tables, grill, cornhole, a football. Murdock also brings supplies to sanitize, hand towels, paper towel and spray cleaner — cleanup isn’t nearly as fun as setup, he said, so he likes to make it easy.
Murdock tries not to bring raw ingredients like meat or chicken. Instead, he cooks it ahead and just reheats it at the tailgate. For example, he bakes ribs at home, cools them down, wraps them in foil and reheats them on the grill on game day before finishing them with his homemade barbecue sauce.
They’ve done nachos on the grill, too, piling all the ingredients on foil and then closing the grill to let everything melt. For meatball subs, meatballs get cooked in advance and reheated on the grill. Sauce is warmed on the burner attachment. They toast the rolls and assemble them with mozzarella.
“Store-bought meatballs work great, too,” he says.
One time they made Oysters Rockefeller on the grill. And he doesn’t mind cooking raw fish on the spot because it cooks so fast. That’s what they do for fish tacos, shredding the fish and adding it to other ingredients on a taco bar where everyone can make their own.
Like the Huhtas, they make breakfast sandwiches for early games, wrapping them in foil and bringing them to temperature on the grill.
Everyone else who attends chips in, bringing side dishes, snacks and dessert to complete the meal.
“The food is very important,” he says. “It’s a hobby and everything’s just got to come together.
“I would say Michigan winning is number one, and food is number two.”
Pulled Pork Sandwiches
3 T. brown sugar
2 t. hot paprika
1 t. mustard powder
1/2 t. ground cumin
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 3- to 4-lb. boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat
2 t. vegetable oil
1/2 C. apple cider vinegar, plus more to taste
3 T. tomato paste
Hamburger buns, barbecue sauce and coleslaw for serving
Combine 1 tablespoon brown sugar, the paprika, mustard powder, cumin, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture all over the pork.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet; add the pork and cook, turning, until browned on all sides, 5 minutes. Remove the pork and transfer to a plate; whisk 3/4 cup water into the drippings in the skillet. Transfer the liquid to a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.
Add the vinegar, tomato paste, the remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 2 cups water to the slow cooker and whisk to combine. Add the pork, cover and cook on low, 8 hours.
Remove the pork and transfer to a cutting board. Strain the liquid into a saucepan, bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Season with salt. Shred pork and mix in a bowl with 1 cup of the reduced cooking liquid, and salt and vinegar to taste. Serve on buns with barbecue sauce and coleslaw.
— Patty Huhta
Sharon Cron’s Coleslaw
1 bag shredded slaw mix
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
½ large onion
1 T. celery seed
Chopped jalapeño to taste (optional)
Add slaw dressing to taste. We use Bolthouse Cilantro Avocado Yogurt Dressing.
Barbecue Sauce for Ribs
24 oz. Heinz Ketchup
1/8 C. apple cider vinegar
1/8 C. soy sauce
1/8 C. Worcestershire sauce
¼ C. diced jalapenos from a jar
1 T. liquid smoke (can add more if needed)
Franks Red Hot Sauce (to taste)
Kosher salt (to taste)
Black pepper (to taste)
Combine all ingredients in saucepan. Bring to light simmer. Chill overnight.
— Travis Murdock
1 ½ lb. ground beef
1/3 C. rolled oats
8 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
½ C. milk
1 T. soy sauce
½ t. onion salt
½ t. garlic salt
8 oz. can crushed pineapple
1 C. packed brown sugar
3 T. cornstarch
1 C. beef bouillon
½ C. vinegar
2 T. soy sauce
1/3 C. chopped green pepper
In medium bowl, combine all meatball ingredients. Shape into small balls, using about 1 tablespoon of mixture for each. In large skillet, brown meatballs in small amount of shortening, turning meatballs frequently to brown all sides, drain well.
Drain pineapple, reserving juice. In medium saucepan, combine brown sugar and cornstarch; stir in pineapple juice, bouillon, vinegar and soy sauce. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly until thick and clear; boil 1 minute. Stir in pineapple and green pepper. Add sauce to meatballs in skillet, simmering about 10 minutes. Keep warm in crock pot or place in chafer with heat. Makes about 4 dozen.
— Patty Huhta