The Most Incredible, Over-the-Top Tailgate Party in the South

One Ole Miss fan pulls out all the stops (seriously — all of 'em) and invites hundreds of fans into her food-stuffed Zebra Tent on game day.
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By: Beth Kaufman

Photo By: Greg Campbell ©Greg Campbell Photography Inc.

Photo By: Greg Campbell ©Greg Campbell Photography Inc.

Photo By: Greg Campbell ©Greg Campbell Photography Inc.

Photo By: Greg Campbell ©Greg Campbell Photography Inc.

Photo By: Greg Campbell ©Greg Campbell Photography Inc.

A Tailgate Like No Other

To say that Jane Foster (right) loves tailgating would be the understatement of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) season. The devoted Ole Miss Rebels fan actually attended Mississippi State, but changed allegiance about 14 years ago to align with her husband's alma mater, the University of Mississippi. Now Foster puts in countless hours planning, cooking and lugging crates for her famed tent in the school’s legendary 10-acre tailgate area known as The Grove. Even beyond The Grove, many people consider Foster’s tent to be the most-impressive tailgate in all of college football. Take this tour of her setup and we bet you'll agree.

Photos: Courtesy of Jane Foster

Seeing Stripes

Foster’s appropriately named Zebra Tent stands out from the crowd — and that's on purpose. “We want to make sure that people who come to The Grove have a place they can find easily,” she says. To secure their spot for Saturday, Foster and some helpers, including a few fraternity brothers, get to the area just before 7 p.m. on Friday night. There’s a barricade and a countdown to to exactly 7 p.m. When the timer goes off, everyone runs to save their spot. And the whole thing is taken very seriously: “Some guy tried to hide under a garbage can on the other side and the police took him to jail,” Foster says. By now, most people know the Zebra Tent usually gets the same spot week after week. 

The Game Plan

Foster and two other helpers meet in the summer to plan the themes for every game in the upcoming season. “We try to be as different and creative as possible,” says Foster. For one game, the Zebra Tent had Mexican-style decorations and food, plus fun props for the photo booth. (Yes, they even have a photo booth!) For other games, they’ve planned a luau theme with a seafood tower and a palm tree made out of stacked pineapples. They’ve carved mascots out of watermelons; they’ve had a carnival-themed tent and a Halloween-themed one. They’ve done every idea you can think of — and dozens you can’t! 

An Early Start

On game day, Foster and her crew get to The Grove around 5 in the morning to put covers on all the chairs, hang chandeliers and decorations, and bring in all the food (wheeled in on specially made carts). “We could fill a moving truck with all we bring,” she says. After they set up, everyone runs home to change clothes and get back to the tent by 8:30 a.m. “Then we sit in our Adirondack chairs and enjoy each other for about an hour. Once the people start coming, I don’t sit down again until it’s ballgame time,” Foster says. After the game, packing up and loading the three vehicles (a Suburban, a pickup truck and a car) can take four hours.

Feeding a (Huge) Crowd

During an SEC game day, as many as 700 hungry fans might visit the Zebra Tent. To prepare for such an onslaught, Foster has 12 families that help out; each family must supply three dishes to the tent. (It's a bit of an exclusive club: If you want to join, you have to be recommended by someone who’s already part of Team Zebra Tent.)

Foster herself will make seven or eight dishes, which brings the total to 44 different menu items. She and the rest of the team focus on portable foods that guests can easily eat with their hands — think fried chicken, pigs in a blanket, mini tomato tarts, meatballs and more. Each menu item is made in quantities of 75 to 150. We did the math: That’s up to 6,600 individual pieces of food!

Don't Forget Dessert

All the savory food gets spread across four tables — and then there are additional tables for the candy bar (with brownies, cookies, strawberry cake and, of course, candy) and the champagne fountain, which is constantly flowing.

Wait a minute: free Champagne and seafood towers for strangers? The expenses can certainly add up. “It’s $300 per family to join in for the year. Then it’s possible to spend an additional $300 to $700 a week on food,” says Foster. “Some people spend their money going on a vacation to the Bahamas — we do this.” 

All in the Details

When Foster started going to Ole Miss games, people tried to tell her how to tailgate. “But I told my husband, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to really do this,’” she says. Foster wanted to tailgate her way, and she wanted to be the best at it. “I wanted to show people what the South is all about.”

That meant cushions on all the chairs, chandeliers, picture frames, floral curtain tiebacks and more. “At first, I was just at my rival school, but as I got to know the people at Oxford and really fall in love with The Grove, it just evolved,” she says. “Now I’m a full-blown Ole Miss fan and it’s a team I really cheer for. They just won me over.”

Meet and Greet

“A lot of fun things have happened in our tent,” Foster says. For instance, they've hosted a couple’s engagement, a New York City fireman’s bachelor party and a visit from Tim Tebow’s family. “My favorite, though, was these brothers who were going to every SEC game together because one of the brothers had cancer. He didn’t make it, and Ole Miss was the last school on the bucket list,” she remembers. The other brothers made the visit and gave a special tribute to their late brother. 

A Step Above

The first question Foster usually gets when people visit her tent? “Who did you hire to do all this?” When she tells them the truth, they don’t seem to understand. “They always want to know what my house looks like,” she says with a laugh. “Some people come into the tent and take 50 or 60 pictures — like they’re on Mars or something.”

School Spirit

“I’ve been to most of the other schools,” says Foster. “They’re nice and all, but I truly believe you just can’t beat The Grove. Nobody has anything that’s set up as pretty. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people. Nothing ever has or ever will compare to The Grove,” she says.

And sure, it’s a lot of time and effort, but when it’s over “we get kinda bored,” Foster says. After a tailgating celebration like the Zebra Tent, we can totally understand what she means.

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