Tailgating. To some, it means driving too close to the car in front. To others, it is the part of the pickup truck that drops down to load the bed. To American football fans, tailgating is the glorious tradition of loading a cooler with all the appropriate beverages and food and heading to the mecca of the day that is your team’s stadium.

The history of tailgating is a mystery but that doesn’t mean there isn’t many a theory on the origins. Some say it can go back to the ancient Greek and Roman harvest festivals. Celebrating the end of summer and preparing for the winter. Others say it is from 18th century France where families would gather around the guillotine with their dinners waiting for the next victim. Finally there are the American stories that point to the first-ever football game in 1869 which pitted Rutgers versus Princeton or the Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil War where civilians would stand along the battle field consuming food and wine.

The theories range from different eras and different continents but all of the theories highlight the importance of food, beverages, and community.

Today’s tailgating practice is truly American and something that is taken very seriously by the fan-faithful. So what is it exactly? According to Wikipedia, tailgating “…often involves consuming alcoholic beverages and grilling (barbecuing) food. Tailgate parties occur in the parking lots at stadiums and arenas, before and occasionally after games and concerts. People attending such a party are said to be ‘tailgating.’ Many people participate even if their vehicles do not have tailgates. Tailgate parties also involve people bringing their own alcoholic beverages, barbecues, food etc. which is sampled and shared among fans attending the tailgate. It is usually taboo to sell anything to fans.”

So picture a car park that is designed to hold tens of thousands of vehicles. Now imagine that each of those vehicles have arrived four to five hours before game time and have essentially a mini-campsite ready to unload from said vehicle. This campsite includes seating, a portable barbecue, a cooler (or multiple coolers) stocked with plenty of food and beverages—mostly of the alcoholic variety. There will also be a portable table, usually a few outdoor games to pass the time before kickoff, and sometimes flags, banners, and other ways to identify how serious you are about your team.

Types of food at a tailgate do vary by region in America. In the South you can count on good southern barbecue complete with cool, crisp slaw. Unless you are in the Bayou of Louisiana as that is Cajun country and a proper gumbo is a must. In the mid-west they are all about the brats—sausages to you and me—and in the New England area you know there will be plenty of clam chowder around.

Tailgating before an American football game is tradition. Its history may be a bit hazy but its roots are planted firmly in the asphalt surrounding the 31 NFL stadiums around the country. To fully experience American football on its home turf, a tailgate experience is a must. Without it, you might as well be at Wembley.