Tailgate heroes

Natural Born Grillers

Natural Born Grillers

by Andrea Weigl

photographs by Jillian Clark

Neither pouring rain, nor thunder, nor storm warning sirens could deter them.

N.C. State University fans may have briefly hopped into their cars and trucks or huddled under tents to avoid the downpour, but they still filled the parking lots encircling Carter-Finley Stadium for this year’s season opener.

The Wolfpack nation were decked out in their red, white, and black. Their chairs, tents, and hammocks were red. Their party cups and koozies were red. Their aprons, tablecloths, and steel-drum pig cookers were red. It is clear that these tailgaters take two things seriously: Wolfpack football and their food.

Natural Born Grillers, Reagan and Marsha Driver.

Natural Born Grillers, Reagan and Marsha Driver.

Like Anthony Nessell of Rockingham, who ground brisket, chuck roast, and bacon that morning to make burgers for his tailgating group, the “Natural Born Grillers,” before the 6 p.m. kick-off. Along with those burgers, Nessell and his grilling and frying accomplice, Terry Grayson of Apex, were cooking up bacon-wrapped hot dogs, sausages, Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, and s’mores wontons.

This group has been tailgating together for about 20 years, since the day Mark and Rhonda Driver of Wilson took pity on Grayson and his college friends – parked a few spaces away – as they struggled to cook on a rinky-dink grill.

“We were sitting there, drinking a cold beer, and it looked like a Chinese fire drill,” says Mark Driver, who offered the 20-somethings the use of his grill. “We have been together ever since.”

The Natural Born Grillers' cookbook.

The Natural Born Grillers’ cookbook.

The tailgating group’s dynamic has evolved, Grayson says, from the keg stand revelry of their 20s to the family-friendly games and camaraderie they enjoy with their children today.

Food is a key part of the group’s pre-game ritual. They plan out menus based on themes: All-American, Mexican, Lowcountry boil. Grayson and Nessell, the group’s primary cooks, never met a dish that wasn’t improved by bacon. And they love to figure out how to deep fry their favorite dishes: pecan pie, apple pie, chocolate chip cookie dough, even banana pudding. “We’ll try anything in a wonton wrapper or an egg roll,” Nessell explained. They have even published their own tailgating cookbook, and consistently win the N.C. State tailgating contest for their “region” of the parking lot. In 2012, they beat out all of the other “regional” winners to be named overall Tailgate Champions.

All of this cooking and eating – and bacon – is not for the faint of heart or the waistline-obsessed. “We call it the tailgate 10,” jokes Rhonda Driver.

The Natural Born Grillers are set up to eat.

The Natural Born Grillers are set up to eat.

Natural Born Grillers

Natural Born Grillers

"We'll try anything in an eggroll," says Anthony Nessell who prepared these Philly cheesesteak eggrolls.

“We’ll try anything in an eggroll,” says Anthony Nessell who prepared these Philly cheesesteak eggrolls.

The Natural Born Grillers aren’t the only ones to take their tailgating spread seriously.

Jack McDuffie and Rick Gentry are the primary cooks for a tailgating group who came together around a Raleigh-based company, Food Masters, Inc. The company’s founder, Ron Moore, began tailgating at N.C. State games in 1969 and eventually bought a motor home for that purpose.

Their group, which can host up to 80 people on a Saturday, has expanded over the years as these things do: this guy is that guy’s college roommate, this guy played tennis with that guy’s daughter in the 1970s, and they met this guy at a softball tournament. Moore and his family and friends are now on their third motor home, which is currently co-owned by four families – and mainly used for tailgating.

Steve Ferone, Dr. Herb Land, and Rick Gentry have their game faces on.

Steve Ferone, Dr. Herb Land, and Rick Gentry have their game faces on.

Gentry, a Raleigh resident who has two sons who played N.C. State football and a daughter on the soccer team, prepares all the meats with McDuffie: chicken, pork chops, ribs, and pulled pork. Everyone else brings sides and desserts. All together, the spread fills several eight-foot tables.

“I like cooking for people,” says Gentry. So much so that the opening day of dove hunting season – a day he wouldn’t miss, but the same day as N.C. State’s season opener – didn’t change his routine. Gentry got up at 3:30 a.m. to go hunting, returned home by 11 a.m. to make baked beans, potatoes, and green beans, and got to the motor home lot to finish cooking by 3 p.m. The 15 doves he shot showed up at a later tailgating feast as bog, a lowcountry stew often made with chicken, sausage, and rice.

Rick Gentry and Chad Navin grill an assortment of meats for their tailgate spread.

Rick Gentry and Chad Navin grill an assortment of meats for their tailgate spread.

Not far away is the Six Pack of North Carolina Tailgating Crew, made up of six men from Guilford County. They include Jorman Fields, the group’s patriarch, his son, John Fields, two brothers, Ged and Matt King, and two men who were college roommates, Carl Marshburn and Chuck Crotts. Crotts is such a diehard N.C. State fan that he, his wife, and their wedding party went to the State v. Duke basketball game in Durham a few hours after Crotts and his wife got married 18 years ago.

A couple of years ago, the six men decided to upgrade their tailgating experience. They bought a 16-foot trailer with two 60-inch televisions, a grill, and – to appease their wives – a women’s-only bathroom.

“The most important thing about our tailgate is the women’s bathroom,” Carl Marshburn explains, “and even though the women are not here today…”

Crotts finishes the thought: “It will not get used today.”

Carl Marshburn shows off the prized "women's- only bathroom" in the Six Pack Tailgating Crew trailer.

Carl Marshburn shows off the prized “women’s- only bathroom” in the Six Pack Tailgating Crew trailer.

Six Pack Tailgating Crew member Chuck Crotts mans the bar of his 16-foot trailer complete with two 60-inch televisions.

Six Pack Tailgating Crew member Chuck Crotts mans the bar of his 16-foot trailer complete with two 60-inch televisions.

The men are also serious about their food. This Saturday’s spread included John Fields’ pickled shrimp; pimento cheese; deviled eggs; hamburgers; black bean, corn, and feta salad; chips, and more. Each season, they also do an oyster roast, a fish fry, and a beef tenderloin feast.

For these men, and some many other tailgaters, these Saturdays are about more than just food and football.

Marshburn used to drive up to Raleigh from Charleston, S.C., to go to N.C. State games. Then he took a job in Portland, Ore. and he couldn’t come back as often. Five years after moving to Oregon, Marshburn said he told his wife: “It’s killing me.” He missed this group of friends and these Saturdays too much. They moved back to North Carolina.

“The main thing,” Marshburn said, “is just getting together and the fellowship.”

Six Pack of NC members Jorman Fields, John Fields, Carl Marshburn, and Chuck Crotts.

Six Pack of NC members Jorman Fields, John Fields, Carl Marshburn, and Chuck Crotts.

From Anthony Nessell of Rockingham

Philly Cheesesteak Egg Rolls

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

16 ounces Cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced

1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper, or to taste

2 tablespoons Dale’s steak seasoning

2 (17-ounce) package of Hormel Roast Beef in Au Jus

1 package egg roll wrappers

20 slices provolone cheese

1 large egg, beaten

Vegetable or peanut oil for frying

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions and mushrooms, sautéing until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add black pepper and Dale’s steak seasoning to mushrooms and onions and continue sautéing for 5 more minutes.

While vegetables are cooking, heat both packages of roast beef in the microwave, per the package instructions. Once heated, remove beef from packages and shred in a large bowl.

Add onions and mushrooms to the shredded beef. Stir together and place in refrigerator to cool. (Mixture should be room temperature or lower for egg roll construction.)

Make the egg roll: Lay the egg roll wrapper out like a diamond. The corner furthest from you will be corner 1, corner 2 is to the left and corner 3 is to the right, the corner closest to you will be corner 4. Place 1 slice of cheese and about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the meat in the middle of the egg roll wrapper just slightly below the line between corners 2 and 3.

Use your finger or small brush to spread some beaten egg mixture along the edges from corners 2 to 1 and from 1 to 3.

Take corner 4 (the corner closest to you) and bring it up corner 1 (the top corner). Once you fold it up, use a rolling-back action to tighten the meat mixture into a cylinder shape. Fold in corners 2 and 3, making sure the egg mixture seals both corners. Continue rolling the egg roll towards corner 1 until all the edges are sealed.

Fry the egg rolls in oil at 350 degrees until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and serve with plenty of napkins. Yield: 20 egg rolls.


From Marianne West of Lake Gaston

Grape Salad

4 cups seedless red grapes

4 cups seedless green grapes

8 ounces regular or low-fat sour cream

8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup white sugar or Splenda

1 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup brown sugar or Splenda- brown sugar blend

Wash and thoroughly dry grapes. Mix together sour cream, cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar in a bowl.
Combine grapes and cream cheese mixture and put in a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish or a two-quart bowl.
Mix brown sugar and pecans together for topping. Spread evenly over grape salad and chill overnight.

Yield: 10-12 servings.

Six Pack of NC

From Courtenay Griffin of Wilson

Pickled Shrimp 

1 package Good Seasonings Italian dressing mix

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, thinly sliced

1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed

1 (4-ounce) bottle capers, liquid drained and liquid reserved

1 (5-ounce) jar green olives with pimento, drained and liquid reserved

2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined and cooked

Make Italian dressing, per package directions, substituting red wine vinegar for the vinegar. Make it 24 hours ahead of time for best results.

Combine dressing, onion, red bell pepper, capers, olives, and shrimp together in a large bowl.

Add some or all of the reserved capers and olive liquid to taste.

Let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.

Yield: 10-12 servings.



From Amy May of Raleigh, who recommends using Ghirardelli chocolate chips. 

Rich Chocolate Chip Toffee Bars

1 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup (6 ounces) milk chocolate chips

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine, cut into squares

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 cup coarsely chopped nuts (optional)

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1 3/4 cups (10-ounce package) Heath English Toffee Bits, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Combine chocolate chips in small bowl. Set both aside.

In large bowl, stir together flour and brown sugar. Cut in butter with pastry cutter or a fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add egg; mix well. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips and nuts. Reserve 1 1/2 cups dough mixture. Press remaining dough mixture into bottom of prepared pan.

Bake 10 minutes. Remove baking dish from oven and pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over hot crust. Top with 1 1/2 cups toffee bits. Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture and remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips over top.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup toffee bits. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars.

Yield: about 36 bars.

Six Pack of NC

Six Pack of NC