Cookbook author Rebecca Lang cheers on her Georgia Bulldogs at a floating tailgate where the right cocktails and bites are even more important than the final score.
It's before 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October, but in the shadow of Jacksonville, Florida's TIAA Bank Field, a flurry of activity unfolds across the parking lots and grassy fields in a patchwork of orange and blue, black and red. Things are waking up on the water, too. The St. Johns River meanders some 20 miles from the Atlantic Ocean past the stadium, and the Metropolitan Park Marina fills up fast in advance of this college football matchup between Florida and Georgia. According to dockmaster Capt. Jim Suber, when the 70 or so slips are made available in early September, "They're completely booked in 30 to 45 seconds."
The game has been played here, in neutral territory, since 1933, so there are decades of Gator/Bulldog bragging rights at stake. As the sun glints off the brackish water, "boatgaters" line up along deck railings to survey the adrenaline-fueled scene below. It's still hours before kickoff, but turkey fryers are already bubbling, and blue flames roar under giant pots of Brunswick stew. There's an ever-present aroma of coffee beans in the air from the Maxwell House historic roasting facility a few blocks away, but today, fans opt for bloody Marys and a mysteriously electric-blue concoction referred to variously as "gator punch" or "gator juice."
There's a reason they call this "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party"—a nickname coined, the story goes, after a local Florida newspaper reporter witnessed an overserved fan offering a police officer a tailgate tipple. On Howard and Valerie Scott's 80-foot Burger motor yacht, Capricho, cocktails are the first order of business; grapefruit-rosemary mimosas greet guests at the top of the ladder. This is a civilized floating tailgate, to be sure, with burgers and dogs making way for pickled-okra deviled eggs, fried oyster tacos topped with smoky pimiento cheese, and a tangy black-eyed pea salsa dubbed "Bulldog caviar."
Related: How to Make Gulf Crab Cakes with Lemon Butter
A massive Georgia "G" flag whips from the mast of the Capricho, but the boastful predictions on the docks are good-natured as friends cross from boat to boat. And Florida fans, it turns out, are easily lured into enemy territory with the promise of spicy cucumber cocktails and double-decker pecan brownies.
By midafternoon, dueling marching bands begin to summon the crowds off the gently rocking yachts and into the raucous stadium. Savvy boatgaters make sure to fortify with the last of the marinated shrimp and another handful of boiled peanuts before heading to the stands to find out whether the sun will stripe the sky Georgia red or Florida orange as it sets over the water.
Recipes for a Sunshine State Boatgate
A simple marinade of vinegar, capers, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce does the work of cooking juicy shrimp overnight. So when guests arrive, all you have to do is top with cherry tomatoes and sweet Vidalia onion, and serve with a sleeve of Saltines.
Get the recipe: Marinated Shrimp
Leave that same ol’ combo of oj and cheap bubbles to the undergrads. Instead, prepare a mimosa you’ll actually want to drink: cold Champagne (cava and prosecco will also work), fresh grapefruit juice, peach bitters, and an easy-to-make rosemary simple syrup.
Get the recipe: Grapefruit-Rosemary Mimosas
Deviled Eggs with Pickled Okra
Answer the oft repeated “What can I bring” party inquiry with deviled eggs punched up with Dijon, parsley, and pickled okra (both brine and thin okra slices). These addictive bites are so poppable, it’s better if you double the recipe.
Get the recipe: Deviled Eggs with Pickled Okra
With just four ingredients (peanuts, water, salt, and garlic) you can make a perfect pot of boiled peanuts. Simply track down fresh green peanuts at your local farmer’s market or order online from sites like nuts.com. In just a few hours, you’ll be enjoying this Southern roadside staple with—what else?—a cold cola.
Get the recipe: Boiled Peanuts
This tangy black-eyed pea salsa—named for the University of Georgia’s four-legged mascot, Uga—is a tasty tailgate-ready dip, no matter which school colors you bleed.
Get the recipe: Bulldog Caviar
Cucumber-Jalapeño Gin Coolers
As they say: hydration is key. And with pop-up tables filled edge-to-edge with salty, savory snacks, a bright gin refresher is just the thirst-slaking drink you need to cheer on your favorite squad. Bonus points if you slice cucumbers into twirlable ribbons for a cocktail-bar-worthy presentation.
Get the recipe: Cucumber-Jalapeño Gin Coolers
Mini Tacos with Fried Oysters, Pimiento Cheese, and Fennel Slaw
The key to a great Southern tailgate is salty finger foods, preferably of the fried variety. Like these grab-and-go mini tacos piled high with crispy cornmeal-dredged oysters, pimiento cheese dressed up with chipotle chiles, and a crunchy fennel slaw.
Get the recipe: Mini Tacos with Fried Oysters, Pimiento Cheese, and Fennel Slaw
Georgia Pecan Double-decker Brownies
Cue the tall, cold glass of milk. These rich brownies are not only made with three types of chocolate and chopped Georgia pecans—they sit on a perfectly crumbly chocolate wafer crust.
Get the recipe: Georgia Pecan Double-decker Brownies