At least once a football season, my dad and four siblings will travel to MetLife stadium to tailgate and watch a Jets game together. For us, this means making sandwiches of steak, brie, and baguette, having chips with dip, and beer and seltzers all from the trunk of our car. While we sit in the parking lot, there are hundreds of other cars filled with fans pregaming before they enter the stadium, grilling hamburgers and hotdogs, playing corn hole or football, and ultimately creating a community.

Tailgating is one of the most popular sports traditions in America, especially for football fans who tend to go all out in celebration of their favorite teams. Tailgates may include face paint and team merch, lots of delicious food and drinks, the smashing of tables as good luck traditions, and a number of different games to play as you wait to enter the stadium. And, while tailgates may just seem like a time to party, it actually has a surprisingly in-depth history.

The origins of tailgating

Tailgating has had a dark start in the United States. On July 21, 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run, Union supporters and Washington residents packed for a countryside picnic as they watched the battle ensue. Although people soon began to understand this type of event was not the best for socializing, at the time, watching these battles with food and friends became a tradition. Not long after this, tailgating began to take form in the way we know and love it today.

How the automobile and portable grills led to tailgating

The start of tailgating as we now know it began with the first-ever football game at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1869. Once the automobile gained popularity, it allowed people to do more partying at the football game rather than simply eat and celebrate beforehand.

The post-WWII rise of the Station Wagon gave the perfect tool for this growing tradition. Then, tailgating truly took off in the 1980s and 1990s as inventions like portable grills and ice coolers made transportation and serving of hot and cold food much easier.

Around one-third of tailgaters don’t even make it to the game. This perfectly sums up what the practice of tailgating is all about. It is about creating a community through food and fun. Of course, sports fans tailgate while they wait for the stadium doors to open, but so many others choose to come early to bond with others over shared interests and use their excitement and energy for the game as a way to meet new people.