Nancy Swayne has been tailgating at steeplechases for half a century. In the early days, she helped her mother plan the menu. For the past 40 years, she’s been in charge, preparing, packing and serving elegant picnic repasts for family and friends at Radnor Hunt, Willowdale, Winterthur and other steeplechases. “Of the 23 meets at Willowdale, I’ve only missed one,” she says.
The Unionville resident keeps meticulous records for ready reference. Last year, when temperatures at Willowdale hit 85 degrees, she went through 10 bags of ice. “Planning a successful tailgate has everything to do with the weather,” she says. “When it’s cold, people aren’t interested in my homemade iced tea. When it’s hot, nobody wants soup. When it’s very windy, we serve from our SUV.”
Although many items on the menu change with food trends, three crowd-pleasers have earned a permanent place: shrimp cocktail, sliced filet mignon and deviled eggs. “People enjoy them consistently,” she says.
To minimize the need for cutlery, Swayne gravitates toward finger-friendly foods like sliced fruit skewered on toothpicks and lemon bars cut into wedges. “Nobody should have to balance a big plate and a knife and fork,” she says. “Keep it simple.”
Make certain your guests can locate you. Send notices with a map and your tailgate and cellphone numbers
Create a custom tool kit. Include such staples as trash bags, sunscreen, extra cups, a first-aid kit, paper towels and toilet paper.
Weatherproof your tailgate. Pack a patio umbrella. Load chests with lots of ice to keep foods safe throughout the day. You also can freeze bottles of water to use as ice packs, then enjoy drinking the cool water as it thaws.
Make it pretty. Dress your table with linen tablecloths and bouquets of fresh flowers. Serve dishes on attractive platters.
Don’t forget the folding chairs. A day at the races is a long time to stand.
Paula Janssen, of Janssen’s Market in Greenville, Del., caters to the racing set with such favorites as fried chicken. “You also can’t go wrong with a great cheese tray,” she says. “Add cured meats and olives to make it more of an antipasto. Use a variety of crackers in different shapes and grains for a pretty display.”
She introduces color in several ways, starting with a big, bright bouquet of flowers. If you want to take it over the top, polish the silver candelabra. “People eat with their eyes first, so have lots of colors on your table,” she says. “You might do a pasta salad with several different colorsof pasta. A tomato, cucumber and feta salad is beautiful, with red and green and white.”
Plan a menu that requires as few serving utensils as possible. “Because it will be impossible to wash them,” Janssen says.
She recommends small, self-serve treats for dessert rather than cakes and pies that need to be sliced anddistributed to guests. “A plate of cookies, little fruit tarts, and mini cupcakes are so much easier to serve,” she says. “Plus, your display will still look good, where as even the most gorgeous cake loses its visual appeal after you cut into it.”
She also factors food safety into how she chooses, stores and presents foods. “You need to plan how you pack your cooler to keep food at 40 degrees or below,” she says. “Solid items packed next to each other act like ice blocks to keep one another cold. Keep lettuce at the top of your cooler because it isn’t as dense and it won’t keep those other items cold.”
Instead of serving the main courses all at once, put out half the food. Then replenish with the dishes that have been kept chilled in the cooler. If food has been out of the cooler for more than four hours, toss it. “If you are going to make sandwiches ahead of time, offer the tomato and lettuce on a separate tray so people can add them,” she says. “I’d choose ham over turkey because it’s a cured meat and lasts longer.”
Janssen also sees tailgaters leaning away from traditional macaroni and potato salads made with mayonnaise. “Instead of Grandma’s coleslaw with mayo, people are asking for spicy Asian slaw,” she says.
Buy cases of water to keep your guests hydrated. “If you can have a separate cooler for it, so much the better,” she says.
Drink dispensers equipped with a sealed core that can be frozen keep iced tea, sangria or signature cocktails cold longer. Because the ice is separate, the beverages won’t become diluted as it melts.
Janssen encourages picnickers to reimagine containers they already have around the house to transport tailgate items efficiently. “Laundry baskets are great for transporting plates. They’re big, easy to carry—and they never flip over,” she says. “Wicker hampers are beautiful, but they aren’t the most functional things in the world. They might wind up as part of your display instead of actually being used.”