Tailgating king serves up food and talk at parking lot party

September 20, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

YOU SAY you're really into tailgating.

You show up in the stadium parking lot before every Ravens game, crack some beers, throw some burgers on the grill, toss a football around with whoever's sober enough to go out on a pass route without slamming into another car and ending up in the emergency room.

But compared to Joe Cahn, you're strictly a dilettante, my friend. You're a rank amateur and this guy is literally a professional, and you just have to deal with that. Quite frankly, you couldn't carry this guy's spatula.

See, ever since 1996, when he split with his wife and sold his New Orleans School of Cooking and his house, Cahn, 56, has devoted his life to tailgating.

As the self-proclaimed Commissioner of Tailgating, he's tailgated at all 32 NFL stadiums, more than 73 college stadiums, and a bunch of NASCAR tracks.

He's had pierogis in Pittsburgh, bratwurst in Green Bay, Buffalo wings in Buffalo, cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, barbecue brisket in Dallas, Chesapeake Bay crabs in this town and every appetizer, dip and side dish known to man.

I don't even want to think about this guy's cholesterol level.

I just want to hang out with him for the next, oh, five or six years.

When I met him a few hours before the Ravens-Steelers game yesterday, he had just rolled into M&T Bank Stadium in his 40-foot luxury RV, fresh from a day of tailgating at the University of Delaware football game 24 hours earlier.

On the grill, he was firing up smoked sausage, Italian sausage, corn and green onions. A Steelers' fan had just given him a bottle of delicious home-made red wine.

"Have something," Joe Cahn said.

It was 9 in the morning. And all I could think of was: I have just died and gone to heaven. This beats the hell out of another Michael Phelps column.

While he cooked, Cahn, a cheerful, balding man with a bushy gray beard, spread the Gospel of Tailgating, the one he espouses outside the nation's stadiums six months a year.

"Tailgating has become the new community social event," said Cahn, who rarely even watches the games themselves. "It's America's last great neighborhood. It's what neighborhoods used to be. You don't sit out on the steps anymore and wave to [your] neighbors. You sit inside in the air-conditioning and watch TV.

"But here in the parking lot, you know your neighbors. You're able to do what you used to do in all neighborhoods: lean over the fence and talk."

After his mid-life crisis, Cahn fell in love with the whole tailgating scene and vowed to make it a way of life.

He finances his travels - it's just him and a cat named Sophie traveling 30,000 miles in the RV - with off-season cooking shows and restaurant consulting work in New Orleans.

The RV, by the way, is donated, and Cahn is also getting some financial help on this year's tour from the Campbell soup company, which donates a can of soup to the needy for every mile he drives on his tailgating tour.

With Joe Cahn, tailgating is not about how fancy the spread is, or how much food is involved, or whether you're cooking on one of those gleaming metallic gas grills the size of a Trailways bus. In fact, when amateur tailgaters ask him for tips on tailgating meals, his advice is always the same: keep it simple.

Burgers and hot dogs, chicken, ribs, kielbasa, anything you can eat without a knife and fork. And anything that doesn't mean slaving over a hot grill for hours.

"Keep it simple so you have time to visit with your friends," he said. "Any food with friends is good. Bread and butter with friends is a great meal. A 10-course meal with people you don't like leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

The beauty about tailgating with Joe Cahn is, not only do you eat in style with him, but he knows all the other hot tailgating parties at every stadium in the country.

Anyway, after nailing a few of Cahn's delicious sausage sandwiches, we wandered over to the legendary tailgate party put on by the Poe Brothers, where Cahn was greeted with bows and delighted cries of: "The commissioner is here!"

The Poe Brothers are actually the affable Marc and Gary Scher, who live in Pocomoke City and Ellicott City, respectively.

At every Ravens game, they put out an eye-popping spread for 75 of their friends, family members and business associates.

And when I saw what they were serving yesterday - tenderloin pit beef, Buffalo wings, ribs, bratwurst, shrimp, oysters, burgers - I thought: There's gotta be a way to worm myself into this family.

Cahn and I had some of the Poe Brothers' famous Maryland crab soup and creamy crab dip, which was so good I thought about parking myself near the bowl and threatening everyone else with a fork if they came near it.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Joe Cahn, who had other tailgate rounds to make.

Right after the game, he was leaving for Philadelphia, where he planned to scarf down the requisite cheesesteak sandwiches and lots of other food before the Eagles' nationally televised game tonight.

"I truly believe that no one in this country is having more fun than me," he said.

At least I think that's what he said. I was still eyeing the crab dip and can't be 100 percent certain.

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