There was catfish frying in a big pot in the open air, young kids playing on the porch under gingerbread brackets and, through the open windows, you could see woodwork tattooed with the patina of time.
No wonder passersby stopped to tell Gary Hess the scene reminded them of their grandparents’ old New Orleans house.
But this particular structure isn’t quite a home. Instead, it’s a “reclaimed tailgate trailer,” which Hess has been deploying downtown for Saints home games since preseason this summer.
Hess runs Southern Arch, a mill shop in Belle Chasse, and his tailgate trailer is an intricately detailed example of his work, a composite of historic architectural elements salvaged from many different New Orleans buildings.
“We just tried to make something that represents New Orleans,” Hess said. “I wanted to build a shotgun house on wheels.”
Hess built it over the summer for a reality TV pilot, which a production company is now pitching to cable channels. In the meantime, it’s serving as the real life hub for home game tailgate parties. It has TVs inside and out, an old fridge turned into an ice chest, a fold-down table for beer pong, big windows to interact with the Who Dat nation walking by and plenty of perches for sitting, chatting and eating.
“It was built to be welcoming, and that’s how we are out here,” said Brianna Hardy, who works with Hess at Southern Arch.
The RV tricked out with team colors is a fixture of tailgating culture. But tucked within the parking lots and under the overpasses around Saints tailgating turf, there’s also an ad hoc fleet of specially built or radically retrofitted party vehicles that can stop you in your tracks. And though they were concieved in the highest of Saints spirits, with this season off to a disheartening start the mobile framework they provide for outdoor feasts and family parties feels as important as ever.
“The thing about Saints fans is that even when we’re disappointed by the game, because of the history of the Saints, you still go on,” said Hardy. “People know the party is still going on here before and after, so you have that to look forward to.”
‘Center of the tailgate universe’
Perhaps the best known example, and certainly among the most spirited, comes from an outfit called Tailg8Nola, lately set up by Poydras and Clara streets. Scott “Sparky” Sparks is the ringleader, and a black-and-gold school bus is his big top.
“We’ve been serious about tailgating for a long time, but before it was just out of our trucks and a bunch of tents,” said Sparks, a River Ridge resident and salesman at Crown Buick GMC. “The bus was the game changer. We pull up, you roll out the awning and everyone starts setting up. Everyone knows their roles. It just becomes the center of the tailgating universe.”
Sparky bought the bus, a 1988 Chevy short bus, back in 2010 to compete on the TV show “Tailgate Warriors with Guy Fieri.” Since then, the bus and the party thrown around it by Sparks and his friends (known as the Korner Krewe) have been a magnet for Who Dats of all stripes.
The bus is decked out with fleur di lis emblems inside and out. The interior is trimmed in wood and alligator-pattern upholstery like a rustic lounge. And, most importantly, there’s room for all the gear required to cook outdoors for upward of 200 guests.
Jason Seither, proprietor of the Harahan restaurant Seither’s Seafood, directs the feast.
He’s served everything from fish tacos to Hawaiian sliders to char-grilled oysters. For the home opener against the Buccaneers, he boiled 100 pounds of shrimp, and there’s the perennial return of the “Cajun football,” Sparks’ own TV cooking competition dish that’s essentially a souped-up turducken stuffed with boudin, sluiced with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon.
While Saints pride runs deep, the parties aren’t all black-and-gold.
“We’re opposing fan friendly,” Sparks said. “When you go to road games and hang out with other fans near their stadiums and see what they do, you realize you have so much in common it’s scary.”
First aid, cold beer
While it’s unlikely that Sparks’ bus would be confused for student transit, sometimes people do approach the one-time ambulance now dubbed the Who Dat Nation Fanbulance looking for a little first aid.
“We have to tell them we don’t have much more than cold beer and a full bar,” said Thomas Arnold, who sets up his Fanbluance near Allegro Bistro and its long-running pregame courtyard party.
Sure, the vehicle’s boxy body now sports a bright wrap showing the Dome and Tiger Stadium, and the cab is decorated like a giant football. But the Fanbulance still has its old EMS outline, and that’s part of its appeal for tailgating.
“The beauty of it being an ambulance is that has all these compartments. We can store everything,” said Arnold.
Camp chairs, folding tables, barbecue grills, ice chests and sound system gear all have designated spots in snug equipment lockers, one of which has been turned into a kegerator with taps inside and outside (Arnold’s brand of choice for the tap handle? St. Arnold Brewing, naturally).
“I didn’t want a mobile home, I didn’t want a RV, but when I saw this on a government auction website I thought, that’s it, that’s what I need to have,” said Arnold.
It wasn’t functional at the time, but Arnold towed the retired ambulance home and over the course of several seasons he and his family have been refurbishing it and adding customized bling.
“Everything still works, but I disconnected the siren so I wouldn’t be tempted to use it,” Arnold said.
Arnold runs Cuco’s Mexican Café in Gretna, while his brother, Jeff Arnold, is a state legislator and his other brother, Billy Arnold, works in banking. Between all their contacts, they always have a crowd for game day parties, in addition to the random fans drawn by the vehicle.
“Everyone comes by. They love it. They want to snap pictures with it. That’s what it’s all about,” said Arnold. “The game is No. 1 for now, but if the game becomes secondary, we’ll still be out there having a good time with family and friends.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.