You know when you take a bite of a burger, or a slice of pizza, and it’s so good you exclaim, “That’s the best burger/pizza I’ve ever had”? Maybe you were just hungry. Maybe you were in a good mood. Maybe it’s someone else’s favorite, and you didn’t want to hurt their feelings. And maybe, just maybe it was the best bite you’d ever had.
Well, I am given to hyperbole, and I’ve been known to say what people want to hear from time to time. Part of my job is making people feel good about the pregame parties they throw, appreciating all the hard work and effort that goes into these massive ballgame bacchanals. But, when I say that the tailgate at the University of Tennessee was the most complete, the most diverse and the most impressive I’ve seen, I’m not lying. Nor am I telling you that I just had the best bite of pizza, if you know what I mean.
We had the good fortune of being in Knoxville for Alabama/Tennessee, a rich SEC rivalry (91 meetings strong and counting). And when an arch-rival is in town, the stakes are raised on and off the field. For Tennessee, a storied college football program, the on-field success hasn’t come as often or easily of late. However, that in no way, shape or form means these proud Volunteer fans are going to let the pregame party slip. Oh no — it’s that much more important now. “If Bama gonna come to town then we gonna show them a good time.” Well, a gracious and generous host, they proved, especially seeing as Bama has bested UT now nine straight times. But on-field issues in no way prevented UT from living up to it’s top 10 national tailgate ranking… and then some.
Flying to Knoxville from the northeast is generally a two-leg trip: NYC to Charlotte, and then a regional flight into Knoxville. The airport in Knoxville is so small and quaint it has rocking chairs by the windows for passengers to chillax on before flights. Upon arrival Friday we took a driving tour of Knoxville to scout for game day, which is basically a full-city bright-orange, beer can and BBQ takeover. We saw the campus, drove by the Sunsphere (“Hey, look, it’s that tower globey thing from the world’s fair!”), then settled in for lunch. It’s noon, and at this point we’d been awake since 4am, so we were hun-guh-ree.
If you’re looking to strap on the feedbag at a local favorite, don’t miss The Tupelo Honey Cafe in Market Square. Any place that offers unlimited free scratch-made biscuits with homemade blueberry jam and wild honey deserves to be on the national registry of magic places. Outrageously good food. Southern charm. And Bloody Marys so good they’d win in a fight TKO first round against anything NYC and its fancy brunch brigade could offer. Hey, this Knoxville place my mom has been telling me about for so many years is alright. (She’s from Chattanooga but has family all throughout the state.)
A three-hour disco nap later we were recharged and ready for our Friday night bites, the “Taste Of the Town” segment, where we feature a local spot fans like to get the party started at nice ’n early. And while Knoxville has three cool parts of town to do so in (Market Square, The Strip, and Old City), a beloved institution by the river called Calhoun’s was the choice. It’s part of Old City, and attracts thousands every UT home game weekend. There’s a huge porch overlooking the river where most of the Vol Navy sailgaters dock their boats for the weekend (some as early as Tuesday). Everyone said the same thing about Calhoun’s: with great ribs, cold beer, a beautiful view and plenty of room for everyone, why would you go anywhere else?
This interloper and observer was not to argue. After some good-natured ribbing between Bama and UT fans in the parking lot (RV folk who had set up Thursday for an epic party Saturday), we made way to the Downtown Brewery for a crew meal and nightcap. Their house-brewed IPA and homemade steak ’n cheese pizza are not to be missed. Unless you don’t want to have Lena Dunham’s body, which is apparently what I’m trying to do with all this delicious food and drink on the road. Someone’s gotta take one or three for the team, right?
Saturday? Yowza! Where to begin? Well, for starters, if you’re in town visiting and not a UT regular then be prepared to park far away. All the lots within a mile of the stadium are for alums and reserved parking passes. Nice thing about the hike along University Blvd. is you get to cruise by so many different kinds and sizes of tailgates. Many of them had prepared “Welcome Parties” for returning heel Lane Kiffin (he infamously ditched UT years back and now coaches for Alabama). He’s not viewed too kindly around Knoxville, and the way these fans let him know — graffiti, smashing pianos and cars with his name sprayed in it, X-rated dolls, suggestive signage — you could see these fans hadn’t lost any of their fight.
Over the next few hours our travels took us into Fraternity Park for high-octane fun and seriously good grilling, and then the G10 lot for the most classic, handsome and raucous of true southern tailgating. After that was Vol Village, where tents are set up for families and corporations that pay to have them set up in advance. This is also where I ran into my mom’s cousin and family, who we took a 30-minute break with, just long enough for him to show me how to make “Skip And Go Naked Punch,” a shandy on steroids if you will, that will make you want to do exactly as advertised. And of course we made our way back to Calhoun’s for a visit with the Vol Navy.
Now we’ve seen some sailgates before — in Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and most recently Baylor. But what they call The Vol Navy parks outside Calhoun’s along the Tennessee River. Day-Umm. Yachts that cost tens of millions. Party pontoons. And good old-fashioned family vessels full of students and retirees who’d sailed in earlier in the week and were on their third or fourth day of sailgating! Whatever it is I need to do in this life so I can put the mic down, go sailing and spend my days tanning my unfit self on a boat for close to a week in anticipation of a football game, alma mater or not? Hey, life’s nothing without goals, right? And one of mine was to get down to Knoxville and enjoy a football Saturday with good old Rocky Top. With a stadium that holds 100,000 fans, the area around Neyland Stadium swells to about 150,000 strong. And nobody comes empty handed, or leaves hungry. Now that is my idea of a good time
Whatever it is you want, they have. In abundance. Every classic dish, meat, snack and eat. Every must-have drink for all ages. Bourbons and whiskeys from around the world and down the street. And fans who love football but are just so happy to be there. They love them some Tennessee football, Tennessee weather, Tennessee people… I mean, good luck trying to walk 100 feet at a UT tailgate and not hear the school’s unofficial anthem, “Rocky Top.” It is to the Vols what “Country Roads” is to the Mountaineers.
There’s just so much that you feel like you can’t possibly take it all in. The late start time allowed for us to do a full seven hours, and as gassed as you feel right before kickoff, all you want is more. And that’s the sign of a good time. You don’t want to get off the ride. Seeing as I have family in the area and we had such a good time that didn’t allow for game attendance (off to NYC with our mountain of footage to get started on the show), we’ll be back. Next time it will be as a Tailgate Fan without the TV show thing. Be good to be back with Rocky Top again.
Next we’re off to Jacksonville for the annual Georgia/Florida game known affectionately as “The World’s Largest outdoor Cocktail Party.” Moms and Dads throughout the south must be thrilled that their tuition money goes to that. We’ve seen it before. It’s pretty epic. So if you need me this week, I’ll be in the sauna. Or the gym. Or my couch. Doing my Kalegate Fan plan. The price of being the Tailgate Fan.