I drove down Pattison Avenue recently, hoping to forget. I'd accepted that the Eagles would miss the playoffs again this year, but was still coping with the psychological fallout. Working off a tip from veteran tailgater/City Councilman Jim Kenney, I went looking for a place outside the Linc where I could eat and drink away my sorrows.
My destination: Section E4, home of The Tailgate.
Before long, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man slicing a perfectly smoked brisket. Then I saw an entire table of wine. Four microbrews on tap. Spicy chili mac-and-cheese. Crab bisque with 40-year-old tawny port. Sesame seared ahi tuna. Hot chocolate with Tahitian vanilla beans. And is that crème brulee French toast?
Yeah, this must be the place.
"It became sort of a competition to see who could bring the best food to the tailgate," said Steve Rommeihs, the Eagles' executive chef at the NovaCare Complex, who for the past 12 years has been presiding over this invitation-only event with friends. He tries to keep it under the radar somewhat, but there's only so much you can do once Google Maps has pinpointed your precise location as "The E4 Tailgate."
Every Eagles home game, they set cuisine themes based on the opposing team. For the Monday night Panthers game when I dropped by to visit, Carolina-style pulled pork, ribs and brisket were part of the mix.
Most people bring a dish or a bottle. Experimentation is encouraged. Wine collectors talk shop as much as they talk football. "It's about taking it to the next level," Rommeihs said. "It's an opportunity for people to be creative and work outside the box."
They've had 100 to 200 people for big games like the Giants or Cowboys, but usually average 50 to 75. Many have tickets but don't even go into the Linc. This season, can you blame them?
Brisket a la Egg
"I got a really good smoke ring," explained Tre Hilty, who'd just cooked his first brisket on a Big Green Egg, a ceramic smoker that's a bit pricey, but worth every dime for the serious BBQ'er. Hilty used an overnight dry rub that included brown sugar, mesquite seasoning and Paul Prudhomme's Blackened Redfish Magic, then smoked the brisket for six hours.
"The array of food is just incredible," said Hilty, who owns a painting company in Annandale, N.J. "We try to step it up."
I sampled the crème brulee French toast, then asked Rommeihs for the recipe. "Can't tell you," he said. "I'd have to kill you."
Over at the wine table, Larry Morris was pouring a pinot noir that was bottled when I was in kindergarten. "It's always nice to drink with wine hobbyists and eat with chefs," said Morris, a wine collector from Voorhees. He was joined by Charlie Beatty, resident oenophile at Wine Works in Marlton. Beatty knows his stuff, and I was relieved that he didn't look down his nose at someone like myself, who does not know his stuff.
"What wine is my favorite wine?" Beatty asked. "Whatever wine I'm drinking now."
Did I mention that this is, hands down, the best tailgate I've ever been to?
Eventually, I was offered some of The Tailgate's highly coveted bananacello, which is an honor unto itself.
The homemade nectar is so luscious, one tailgater suggested, that it has been rumored to cause, um, involuntary tumescence among male Eagles fans.
Antimo Lamberti, whose mother, Lucia, makes the booze, retrieved the sacred bottle from a hidden location under the table and poured me a shot. "The recipe," he said, "is a secret."
The Eagles lost.
But I've found the Promised Land of Philly tailgating and befriended its inhabitants. In section E4, losing never tasted so good.