Whether you root for the Tide, Tigers, Hornets, Bulldogs, Trojans, Blazers or Jaguars, there’s one thing on which every sports fan can agree: football weekends require plenty of good food, preferably cooked over an open flame.

Sure, tailgating is an obsession of sports fans nationwide, but in the South tailgating is a way of life. During the fall and winter, every Saturday (and Friday, and sometimes Thursday) you’ll find folks camped out all across Alabama celebrating their teams with hot dogs, beer and a good time.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Missy and Browne Mercer. The couple runs a trio of establishments in Montgomery’s Old Cloverdale neighborhood — Tomatino’s Pizza & Bake Shop, Louisa’s Bakery and Café Louisa — so their culinary prowess isn’t in question.

And it’s only the power of food that can hold this “house divided” together. Both rabid football fans, Auburn grad Missy and Alabama grad Browne each wrote cookbooks paying homage to their schools. Auburn University Cookbook and The University of Alabama Cookbook were released last year, and they’re filled with tailgate-friendly recipes, ranging from cocktails to barbecue to dessert.

Before you plan your next tailgate, consider these tips and tricks from a true football-food power couple.

The most important part of any tailgate setup is the equipment. Proper cooking is the only way to make those recipes delicious. The Mercers travel with a mini Big Green Egg grill, which allows both grilling and smoking. When it comes to fuel, the couple says there’s only one choice: “Charcoal all the way!” Gas grilling, they say, just doesn’t provide the same flavor.

The open flame is certainly important — Missy loves to grill sausage with mustard sauce as a main course — but the Mercers say the real secret to a successful tailgate is to “prepare everything you can ahead. It makes game day more relaxing and lets you enjoy your time.”

Most of what you’ll find on their table is finger food, like sausage balls, dips or chicken wings. Not only does this allow guests to graze over the course of the day, but it helps you accommodate the inevitable extra guests who will show up. “If you have 20 people and a variety of dishes made for 10, you will be fine,” the Mercers said.

And don’t forget beverages! Sure, beer’s fine, but both Missy and Browne prefer cocktails. Typically, they keep it simple — Jack and Coke for Missy, vodka for Browne — but when entertaining, they turn to the more elaborate punches and blender drinks featured in their cookbooks. Auburn fan Missy even admits that her favorite game-day drink comes from Tuscaloosa: the Nicodemus served at Nick’s in the Sticks. “Ever since I tried that the first time, Browne has been trying to replicate it for me.”

As a final tip, the Mercers remind tailgaters that just because they’re cooking outside doesn’t mean food-safety rules go out the window. Their warning to tailgating chefs: “Do not leave stuff out all day and serve your guests something that night.” Missy and Browne always bring along plenty of coolers to keep both drinks and food chilly. A basic rule of thumb to remember is that nothing should be left to sit at between 40 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four hours.

Try Missy Mercer’s Orange & Blue Caramelized Onion Dip and Browne Mercer’s Rammer Jammer Baked Beans at your next tailgate.

Orange & Blue Caramelized Onion Bacon Dip

Ingredients

  • 2 large red onions
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 4 slices maple bacon
  • 1  8-oz. package of cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley — chopped

Directions

Slice red onions into thin half moons.

Melt butter and saute onions with salt, pepper and cayenne. While the onions are cooking, place bacon in separate pan and cook until crisp. The onions will take awhile so they need to be placed on medium heat. Consider a non-stick pan to avoid burning them.

When onions are done, combine the cream cheese and mayonnaise. Add the onions and cooked bacon that has been roughly crumbled. Add freshly chopped parsley for garnish.

Rammer Jammer Baked Beans

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ground beef — browned
  • 1 white onion — diced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic — minced
  • 2 28-oz. cans Bush’s Maple Cured Baked Beans
  • 2/3 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
  • 1 tablespoon Worchester sauce
  • 1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • Salt to taste

Directions

Brown beef and onion. Add garlic and beans. Combine the rest with meat mixture in a casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour or until hot and bubbly.

Photos of Orange & Blue Caramelized Onion Dip (from Auburn University Cookbook by Missy Mercer) and Rammer Jammer Baked Beans (from The University of Alabama Cookbook by Browne Mercer) by Zac Williams; reprint permission by Gibbs Smith, Publisher.

About the Author

Jason Horn is a Birmingham-based food writer and co-founder of FoodBlogSouth. Read more from him at his blog, The Messy Epicure.

The views expressed here are those of the author.