Niki Davis on successful tailgating

Niki Davis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, prepares porky pimento cheese sliders for tailgate grilling. (Photos provided)

September 09, 2022

Kick off your tailgate right with tips from SIU “food nerd” and expert

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — It’s football season and time for that favorite of fall traditions – tailgating. Niki Davis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, offers a few tips for tackling your next tailgate to ensure it’s safe, fun and tasty for everyone. 

Seven pointers for a successful tailgate

Prepare for the big game

Prevent game-day scrambling by preparing as much of the food as possible the day before the football game. Pack everything in airtight containers and refrigerate. Have coolers clean and ready to ice down and load with refrigerated items the morning of the game. Organize your grill and accessories in one area so you don’t forget anything when you load your vehicle on game day.

Be the early bird

Allow plenty of time to set up your tailgating area and still socialize with friends and neighbors. Arrive as early as the stadium allows, but at least 4 hours before the game, so you’ve got time to prepare food and eat about 2 hours before the game. If you must vacate the tailgating area before the game starts, begin the cleanup process about an hour before kickoff so you aren’t rushed.

Keep it clean

Simple cleanliness and safety precautions go a long way in preventing illness. Set up a handwashing station for your guests and your cooks to use. It’s easy to do.  Use a small cooler with a spout or repurpose a large laundry detergent container with a spout to hold water. Set up a liquid soap dispenser, paper towels and disinfectant wipes next to the water with a trash bucket below.

Labels matter, and keep it separate

Keep drinks in separate coolers from your food and be sure to label which is which. Put beer and other alcoholic beverages in separate coolers from sodas and other kid-safe drinks. Label these, too, to make it easy for your guests to find the appropriate drinks. If you have a lot of under-21 guests, consider placing coolers with nonalcoholic drinks in a separate location, away from the coolers housing alcoholic drinks to make it easier to monitor, perhaps catching any kiddos who may be tempted to engage in sneaky behavior.

Recycle and reuse those six-pack holders

Keep a few empty six-pack bottle carriers on hand to help keep condiments organized. Place hot sauce, ketchup, mustard and other condiment bottles or even salad dressings in these and set them near the food. There are no guarantees your guests will put everything back in their proper homes, but it helps everyone know where things are and you can easily keep an eye on them and replace bottles if more are needed.

Be first-aid friendly

Anything can happen when you get a group of people together for a celebration. Be prepared by keeping a first-aid kit nearby. This can be one you always have in your vehicle or one you prepare specifically for the event. Either way, having the basics close – including bandages, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic creams, aspirin/acetaminophen, an instant cold compress and tweezers – can alleviate a little stress and make it quick and easy to handle those little “emergencies” that may pop up.

Kick cleanup

Make cleanup easy but have an empty tote or two on hand. Use these to pack up dirty dishes after the event ends. Clear totes help remind you that you need to wash those dishes once you return home. Keep trash bags on hand, too. These can be placed in buckets around your tailgate area to help keep the space clean. Once the bags are tossed after the event, use the buckets to help collect and carry other items.

Davis provided a “touchdown-worthy” recipe you can prepare ahead and pop on the grill to launch your tailgate:

Porky Pimento Cheese Sliders

Yield: 12 sliders

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook/grill time: about 6 minutes


2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

½ cup softened cream cheese

¼ cup small curd cottage cheese

¼ cup mayonnaise

4 ounces diced pimientos, drained

1 tablespoon diced pickled jalapeños

2 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon celery seed

¼ teaspoon cayenne or aleppo pepper 

12 Hawaiian slider buns

12 slices smoked deli ham

24 bread and butter pickle chips


Prepare the pimento cheese by mixing the cheddar cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, pimientos, jalapeños, onion and garlic powder, celery seed, and cayenne pepper using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, beating on low to medium speed until all the ingredients are incorporated and smooth.

Spread about 2 tablespoons of pimento cheese onto the bottom half of each bun. Top with a slice of ham folded in quarters. Add a pickle chip and the top half of the bun and place finished slider into an aluminum pan. Repeat until all 12 sliders are complete. Cover the pan with foil and refrigerate until time to leave for the tailgate (or cook at home).

Heat the sliders in the pan on a medium-hot grill for about 6 minutes or until the pimento cheese begins to melt. Serve warm and enjoy!

Niki Davis with sliders