Croatian Tailgaters in Kansas City
The following article from the New York Times discusses some of the
foods the writer saw at a tailgate party prior to a Kansas City Chiefs'
football game. Note the Croatian foods which were being served at some
parties. John Kraljic
September 24, 2003
Before the Sunday Kickoff, Tailgating With Gusto
By PETER KAMINSKY
ANSAS CITY, Mo.
They come here to the Arrowhead Stadium parking lots from Independence,
Grandview, Boonville and from out in Benton County by the reservoir, all
with a passion for food and football. They come dressed in red, driving
red vans and red pickups. They light fires in the parking lots before
finishing their morning coffee. They are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs,
but more than this, they are tailgaters, heartland enthusiasts of al
And they are not alone. More than a million people attend National
Football League games each weekend. Dan Masonson, a league spokesman,
estimates that 400,000 tailgate before kickoff. Hundreds of thousands
more - millions maybe - tailgate before college football games and in
the infield during Nascar races (race officials estimate that at least
30 percent of the crowds tailgate). Their numbers swell when you take
into account Friday night high school games and Saturday college
lacrosse matches, amateur soccer and flag-football leagues.
Allocate a six-inch bratwurst for each of these weekend tailgaters -
taking two million as a conservative estimate - and you could lay a
straight line of sausages from the Meadowlands, the Giants' home, to
Ravens Stadium in Baltimore - 191 miles.
Todd Wickstrom, who runs Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., said
sales of foods for grills and picnics increased some 30 percent on the
University of Michigan's game days. Tailgate dining costs less and
tastes better than eating in the stadium, he said. "You can drink your
own beer, eat your own barbecue," he continued, "and then you can go to
the game and be full and not have to fight to go through all the lines."
But there is little fast food among die-hard tailgaters. For some fans,
the time spent cooking is half the fun. At Louisiana State University,
some fans show up 48 hours before kickoff to start tailgating, according
to the sports information director, Michael Bonnette. When the Tigers
traveled to the University of Arizona, he added, the L.S.U. fans were
shocked to discover that tailgating was allowed only five hours before
game time. "Our fans just felt like they had gone to another country,"
If you had to pick just one tailgate event to attend - and I have
attended dozens - Arrowhead's would be the one. Chiefs fans tailgate
with gusto, and eat well while doing so.
With its history as a meatpacking center, Kansas City is the birthplace
of one of America's four great barbecue traditions (the others being
Texas and the two Carolinas), and on game days the scent of slow-grilled
meat hangs like a haze over the more than 300 acres of the stadium's
lots. Arrowhead's management recognizes the passion. There are enough
Port-a-Potties surrounding the stadium to accommodate 70,000 fans, and
special receptacles for disposing of live coals are visible everywhere
Arrowhead is tailgaters' Valhalla.
It is also the site of a lineup that suggests a pickup-truck version of
the Oklahoma land rush.
At 6:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, as the Chiefs slumbered before their
first home game, against the San Diego Chargers, there were lines a
half-mile long outside the stadium. The parking lots open at 9 a.m., but
arriving three hours early is necessary for those prepared to jockey for
the best spots, close to the stadium.
Lucy Long, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green
University in Ohio, had told me that tailgating was male-dominated.
"It's a chance to show off," she said, "through the money spent
purchasing expensive gourmet food or through culinary prowess." But
there at the wheel of the seventh van in the line was Deborah Davis, who
with her husband, Richard, heads a competitive barbecue team called Butt
Head Barbecue. They had begun their preparations the night before, as I
learned during a visit to their farm in Adrian, Mo. The Davises, both
49, have devoted a room of their modern barn to a well-equipped kitchen
whose décor of football helmets, autographed pictures and banners makes
it look like a shrine to the Chiefs and the University of Missouri
Mr. Davis had already loaded his large portable smoker with the first of
the 18 slabs of ribs he prepares for game days, while Ms. Davis had
prepared the mise en place for a fresh black bean salsa with Holland
tomatoes. "The local ones just didn't happen this year," she said
wincing. A natural chef, she wielded her knife with speed and precision,
then moved along to prepare a marinade for barbecued shrimp.
It looked good, and I asked if I might have the recipe. Ms. Davis looked
up with a smile, but Mr. Davis answered, "Nope."
I was not surprised. Those who compete in barbecue contests never tell
anybody anything. As is football games, the tiniest adjustments can
confer an overwhelming advantage.
I had witnessed similar preparations earlier in the day during a visit
to another group of Kansas City tailgaters, this one cooking under the
name the Gremlin Grill. Run by three brothers, Al, Pat and Brett
McSparin, the Gremlin was competing in the summer sun at the Barbecue
Blaze Off at the Calvary Baptist Church in Blue Springs, Mo. ("And You
Think It's Hot Here?" read the sign in front of the church.) Pork
shoulder was on the menu for the Blaze Off, but the brothers,
accompanied by a legion of children, wives and friends, were also
starting to smoke a prime rib that they would eat at their Arrowhead
tailgate party the next day.
"We've been doing this for about 15 years," Pat McSparin said. "We are
AT 7 a.m. Sunday morning, Al McSparin's teenage son, Tyler, was tossing
a football to friends under light pole G-28, the spot the McSparins have
held for every game since they began tailgating in 1988. Over in Lot H,
Rich Davis did the same at his spot. Lobbing a pigskin is what
tailgaters across the country do when they're waiting for the lots to
open. From inside the stadium came the booming sounds of the bass and
organ introduction to the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin.' " It
was loud enough to make my heart thump.
At 8:58, the stampede commenced. Like an invasion force hitting the
beach, the McSparin crew approached in half a dozen vehicles, parked and
began to unload gear. By 9:04, two grills had been assembled, and the
first puffs of smoke curled upward from them. Seven minutes after that,
there were three tents erected above long tables, a cocktail bar and
coolers full of cold drinks. As a breakfast offering, someone put a
couple dozen chicken kabobs over the fire.
As the McSparins established their family beachhead, the wide plain of
the parking lots here were transformed, nearly as quickly, into a
tailgating encampment dedicated to the pleasures of food and drink. The
air grew thick with smoke as the aroma of thousands of grills hit from
Fifty feet away from the McSparins, Ken Yarnevich and his friends - some
Croatian, some Slovenian, all Chiefs fans - set out a spread of stuffed
cabbage and plates of the nutty, buttery pastry, part sweet, part
savory, that is known as povatica.
One fan had also prepared a marvelous concoction of ground pork and beef
in a savory brown sauce. Joe Horvat, who calls himself Joko the Croat,
said it was djuvec.
Continuing around the lots, I savored more marvels. Here were grills
attached to the trailer hitches of pickup trucks and mobile kitchens
that might have served Hollywood movie sets. And there in Lot M was
Monty Spradling preparing the most perfectly cooked hamburger I have
ever tasted. Indeed, so confident was Mr. Spradling in his offering that
he served it to me on a bun, unseasoned and with no condiments.
His secret? "The single most important thing here is to use excellent
beef from a butcher who grinds aged chuck," he said. "My butcher
actually throws a little brisket trimmings into the grinder." And his
technique? Simple. "Cook on a hot but not flaming fire for 5 to 6
minutes per side. I only turn once."
Around 10:30 a.m., the combination of smoke, food, music, good spirits
and anticipation of the game began to blend into an irresistible, almost
psychedelic haze of bonhomie.
It led me inexorably toward Rich Davis and his ribs. In contravention of
the Kansas City barbecue canon (which calls for a sweet red sauce), Mr.
Davis served his ribs bare, with only a dry rub for seasoning, and it
was among the best I have eaten in the tailgate or barbecue-competition
world. I told him I tasted different kinds of peppers as well as cloves
and floral sweetness.
"You're right on the peppers," he said, "wrong on the cloves." The
sweetness? A true pit master never tells.
Over at the McSparin bacchanal, Al McSparin was finishing his smoked
prime rib. I drew myself an ice cold pint of Foster's beer from his keg,
mounted on a truck, and dug into an herbaceous, earthy, smoky, salty
slab of beef. By the time I was finished, ticket-holders were streaming
past me into the stadium, a river of red.
As best as I could tell, the departing fans had doused their fires and
gotten rid of the coals, but Pat McSparin was not so sure. "You can
always count on some idiot putting his hibachi under the car so that no
one will steal it during the game," he said. "Then you have to call the
Oh, yes, the game. Chiefs 27, Chargers 14.