October 2008 Issue
When the University of Toledo Rockets football team takes the field, fans eat to win.
Come game time on Saturday, you’re never too far from a tailgate in this state.
And while some fans are content to set up a few lawn chairs and nosh on burgers and brats, others prefer to go pro with their spreads, no matter their division.
Take Christine and Jeff Opelt. As the parents of University of Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt, a little school spirit is to be expected. But the Fremont couple has turned their family tailgate into a feast fit for a king, with enough food for a small kingdom (or at least a court of hungry linebackers).
“My wife usually does the menu planning and directs everyone on what to bring,” explains Jeff. “Christine has five siblings, and I have two, so we have a pretty big extended family in on this.” Aaron’s fan base was the reason Christine’s mother, Betty Ling, suggested they upgrade their operation from the family van to a vehicle better suited to transport their brood. “She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a traveling tailgate,’ ” says Jeff. Soon after, the family found an old church bus for sale and transformed it into a midnight-blue-and-gold chuck wagon, big enough to accommodate Aaron’s entire family and their provisions.
“We come up with a theme for each game,” says Christine, who begins menu planning in the summer. “It’s nothing for us to have 100-plus people, so we’ll get there early and barbecue 200 to 300 chicken wings,” she says. Since her son loves to fish, and stocked the freezer with walleye last summer, she also slated a fish fry for September’s match against Florida International. Other themes include kebabs, burgers and chili made with venison, another product of Aaron’s outdoorsman side.
But perhaps the biggest showstopper is the family’s Mulligan Stew, a hearty concoction of 23 pounds of beef, 15 pounds of potatoes and 50 pounds of additional ingredients that the Opelts simmer over an open fire in a mammoth cast iron cauldron for the better part of the afternoon. Jeff says the stew serves 50 Rockets fans, a pretty ambitious undertaking for a chef with no kitchen. “I used to do it all myself, but now I’ll have everybody bring something,” says Christine.
The food doesn’t stop when the family hits the road. “At the away games we like to do things like ‘walking tacos’ (mini bags of Doritos crushed and filled with taco meat, lettuce, cheese and other toppings, served with a plastic fork),” she says. “We keep it simple.”
Usually parked right next to the Opelts in Lot 10 outside the Glass Bowl Stadium is the Jambulance, an equally over-the-top vehicle converted into a lean, mean, tailgating machine by UT alum Pat Ryan and friends. Jambulance crew member and UT photographer Dan Miller (known in the group as Photodan) says Ryan was searching for a vehicle to take to the games when he stumbled across the 1993 Ford E-350 7.3L diesel ambulance on a used-ambulance Web site. “It had low mileage and was solid as a rock,” says Miller. “So we flew out to Atlantic City and drove it back to Ohio.”
The conversion that followed is nothing short of epic (and well chronicled on Ryan’s Web site www.toledojambulance.com
), and involved the addition of the Freedom Grill FG-100 — a full-size grill with a custom Toledo Rockets grill grate — mounted onto the rear of the Jambulance. The grill is attached to an arm that lets the crew adjust its position, and together with a few small generator-powered appliances, functions as the crew’s kitchen, where Miller has been known to cook up a batch of his chili while fellow tailgaters watch games on the vehicle’s 32-inch flat-screen TV. “We do a lot of basic tailgate foods like burgers, but this year we’re putting more effort into it,” says Miller. “We talked about doing something like ‘Mexican night’ or ‘German night.’ And there’re always a lot of ideas when our opponent has a feathered mascot,” he laughs.
While the Opelts, Miller and their gangs may bring on the school spirit in a big way, no one takes game day quite as literally as Duane Horst. Although Horst, who has had season tickets since 1983, tailgates for every home game, he and his friends go all out with a wild-game spread for the annual November showdown between UT and its longtime rival, the Bowling Green State University Falcons.
“There are four or five of us that work the grills and fryers,” says Horst, explaining that his core group consists of avid hunters and fishermen. The menu for this annual feast typically includes marinated duck or Canadian goose wrapped in bacon, as well as venison and beer-battered salmon and halibut, caught during a friend’s yearly fishing trip to Alaska. Horst says he and friends Bruce Ellis (“the duck and goose guy”) and Jamie Gardner (“the venison guy”) supplement the primordial feast with the fruits of their other outdoor adventures, too.
“One year I shot a Russian wild boar in the Appalachian foothills along the Ohio River,” Horst says, “and we made ham and sausage sandwiches for the group.” He also delivers fresh pheasant to nearby Tackas Meat Market, where they turn it into a Hungarian-spiced bratwurst. “That is out of this world,” he raves.
But according to Horst, nothing tops his signature item: Road Kill Stew. “I make a base from beans, carrots and potatoes, and then the meat is whatever is in season roadside,” he jokes. He’s not dishing on the ingredients for this dish; “[I] can’t let that one out. It’s been passed down in my family for more generations than I can even guess,” he says.
Horst says he and fellow tailgaters light the grills both before the game and after, so the coaches and athletic department staff can stop by. He estimates they’ll feed more than 150 people before the day is done. “Everyone is welcome,” he says, “except the vegetarians.”
Fellow tailgaters Miller and the Opelts say they’re also planning something extra for the big game, even though it falls on the day after Thanksgiving when more eating — or cooking — might be the last thing on some people’s minds. “We try to do something special for the Bowling Green game,” says Miller. “It’s always around Thanksgiving, so last year we deep-fried turkeys in peanut oil,” he says.
As for the Opelts, who are both graduates of Bowling Green but went on to earn masters degrees from UT, on game day it isn’t tough to see where their loyalty lies.
“I think this year, we’ll have a falcon roast,” says Christine. “I’ll bring the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, and we’ll have ‘falcon soup.’ ”
Recipe courtesy of Dan Miller
Cook time: 1½ hours
1 pound ground beef
2 29-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 15-ounce cans red kidney beans
1 pound Italian pork sausage, casings removed and chopped
1 pound bratwurst, casings removed and chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped (Miller uses a mix of green, red and yellow)
3 chili peppers, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, minced onion powder to taste
chili powder to taste
salt and pepper to taste
2 bottles of Belhaven Scottish Ale or comparable beer
In a large skillet, brown the meat and drain off the grease. In a large stew pot, combine the meat with the remaining ingredients except the beer. Simmer over low heat until chili begins to thicken, about 45 minutes to an hour (adding the juice from the beans will result in a thicker chili). Add the beer and simmer an additional 15–30 minutes. Taste and adjust the spices as necessary.
Opelt Mulligan Stew
Recipe courtesy of Christine & Jeff Opelt
Cook time: 2 ½ hours
The Opelts typically make this dish for 50 in a mammoth cast iron pot over an open flame. Here, we’ve kept it outdoors but adjusted it to feed a smaller crowd.
5 3/4 pounds stew beef
3 cups beef broth
1 1/2 quarts chicken broth
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon garlic salt
1/2 tablespoon onion salt
Franks Red Hot — to taste
3/4 tablespoon dried basil
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
3/4 tablespoon parsley flakes
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 tablespoon dried rosemary
3 3/4 pounds potatoes, cubed
1 1/4 pounds carrots, chopped
3 3/4 pounds fresh or stewed tomatoes, chopped
4 cups frozen corn
1/2 large bunch celery, chopped
1 large head cabbage, chopped
1 1/2 large onion, chopped
2 14.5-ounce cans green beans
1 1/2 pounds frozen peas
Combine the first 12 ingredients and simmer in a cast-iron kettle or Dutch oven over an open wood fire for one hour. Add the potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, corn, celery, cabbage and onion and continue simmering for 60 minutes, adding water to adjust consistency. Add the green beans and peas and simmer 15 to 20 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.