Tailgating with the master

photo(38)Arkansas is a quirky place, and one of those quirks is our flagship university and sports team, which isn’t anywhere near the populous central part of the state, being tucked away instead way up in the Northwest Corner — closer to Oklahoma than to Little Rock. And while that section of the state has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, there was a time when Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, was a small place up in the Ozarks that was a real pain in the neck to get to. Even when I first attended the U of A back in the 90s, there was no functioning interstate highway that would get you into Fayetteville — every bit of traffic had to run along a two lane highway that curved through hills. That all changed during my junior year when I-540 opened, and now Fayetteville is a pretty easy trip — but it’s still a long way from the rest of the state.

Because of this quirk of geography, the Arkansas Razorback football teams have traditionally split their home games between Razorback Stadium on campus and War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. They’ve been doing this since 1948, and all the first games I ever saw were at the Markham street stadium here in the Rock. As the University has grown, and as the Northwest part of the state has become an economic powerhouse, Razorback stadium has grown to seat over 70,000 people, while the aging War Memorial still only seats around 50,000. When I was a kid, games were split evenly between the two sites, 3 and 3, which changed to 4 and 2 some years back. The latest blow to Little Rock games was the moving of the marquee Arkansas-LSU matchup to Fayetteville, leaving us with second tier opponents in central Arkansas. Little Rock games are a tradition that is something of an anachronism, and one which is probably on its way out. But you’d never know that by the tailgate party.

photo(37)Here’s how tailgating works in Little Rock: people from all over the state descend on the golf course that is right next to War Memorial stadium. Packed bumper to bumper to bumper, these tens of thousands of people light up their grills, crack open any number of cold ones, and proceed to party for an entire day. We had our first Little Rock game just yesterday, a night game against Samford, and while the game itself wasn’t as good as it should of been (although we still won), the party beforehand was fantastic.

This year, Jess and I were lucky enough to have been invited to the tailgate party thrown by Kelly and Erika Gee, a couple of friends who are known for their ability to throw a barbecue party. I knew Kelly had skills after attending a pig roast he held last fall in North Little Rock, but yesterday’s event was even more exciting due to one thing: Kelly just recently purchased a beautiful, custom made smoker that he funded through Kickstarter. That’s right — while the rest of the internet was getting worked up over Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer, we here in Arkansas knew where our money was going. It was going to the House of Gee.

We live within walking distance of the stadium, and they were pulling ribs from the fire right as we arrived. Three types of ribs yielded three excellent results, with meat that was firm, juicy, and still fall-off-the-bone tender. I’ve eaten ribs a lot of places, and these were easily some of the best I’ve ever had. A pan full of sliced pork tenderloin was flavorful and tasty, and we got there just before the wings ran out — and thank goodness we did, because the smoked wings were out of control good. Other highlights of the party were some of the strongest and tastiest Jello shots I’ve ever had courtesy of Erin Robinson. We weren’t able to stay long, and we missed what was said to be a tremendous pork shoulder, but I’m still happy to have been a part of the first tailgate of the Beastmaster (the consensus name for the smoker) era.

Thanks again to Kelly and Erika for hosting us — we like you guys even more than your barbecue. And we like the barbecue a whole bunch.

photo(36)

Grill master Kelly Gee

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