Pre-Game Gourmet

Who let the hot dogs out? Ravens tailgating has evolved from franks and burgers to Super Bowl-caliber spreads like marinated lamb chops and crab imperial

November 07, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

A silver candelabrum decorates the table. The chef drops live lobster into a steaming pot. Bearnaise sauce is warming - a tasty accompaniment for the filet mignon about to be flame-broiled.

Exquisite. Scrumptious. Refined. And certainly not bad for parking-lot fare.

Stand up and give a cheer for the world of big-time football tailgating, where pigskin fans and sometime gourmet chefs mix it up to see who can make the most memorable meal. Call it the punt, pass and poach competition.

For 10 days each fall - more if the team earns home-field advantage in the playoffs - the asphalt-covered spaces outside the Baltimore Ravens' PSINet Stadium are home to a gastronomic tour de force.

What does a die-hard football fan eat before a Ravens game? The answer is anything he wants - and that most assuredly includes the classic entree of surf and turf served on a linen tablecloth with those little seafood forks and cups of drawn butter.

"We had hot dogs for the Ravens' first game five years ago," says Emile Henault, 37, a Severna Park lawyer who now cooks his signature lobster and steak meal for most home games. "We've upgraded a bit since then."

Steamed crabs. Barbecued ribs. Grilled rockfish stuffed with crab imperial. Italian sausage and peppers. Homemade soups and stews. The menu on any given Sunday morning outside PSINet is stunning in both its variety and extravagance.

Officials with the Ravens brag that the quality and quantity of Baltimore tailgating has never been better. Maybe it's last year's Super Bowl win. Maybe it's practice. Or maybe Baltimore is just catching up with other National Football League cities after losing so many years of tailgating opportunities when the beloved Colts left town.

"It seems like every year the spreads just get more extravagant," says Roy Sommerhoff, the team's senior director of tickets and facility operations, including the stadium's 4,500-space lots. "The fans really get into it, and we encourage it."

By and large, the tailgating menu is dominated by hearty fare (just try finding a vegetarian quiche in this crowd) and prepared by men. Women attend, mind you, but generally aren't slaving over a hot charcoal grill.

"I think they're too smart for that," notes a veteran tailgater.

Not far from Henault's space in Ravens Lot B, veteran tailgate chef Damon Streat is handling a bird of a different feather. With the care of a running back cradling a football, he unwraps a 14-pound turkey he has injected the night before with Creole seasonings and four sticks of melted butter ("Butter, not margarine," he insists).

Next, he attaches the turkey to a metal chain and slowly lowers it into a gas-fired vat of peanut oil. The hot oil bubbles up, but doesn't spill over the sides of the pot. (Streat is much practiced at this). In about an hour, he'll have fried turkey for 15.

"This is our cold-weather food," says Streat, 41, a District Court commissioner who lives in Owings Mills. "You can always warm yourself around the hot oil."

Like most experienced tailgaters, Streat has arrived early. He drove to the lot around 9:15 a.m. to prepare for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

By arriving four hours before kickoff, he and his fellow tailgaters can get a prime position in the lot. They reserve a little grassy strip in the median near the lot's entrance - room enough for a grill, the deep-fat fryer, as well as two outdoor tables and an ample supply of folding chairs.

But even that timetable pales compared to Rich Wehner of Joppatowne. He and a handful of friends showed up between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., first in line for the lot's opening at a recent match against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It was so early that the group sat down to a breakfast of scrapple and eggs before getting ready for the far more ambitious lunch menu - lamp chops with smoked Gouda, barbecue shrimp wrapped in bacon, teriyaki chicken, marinated venison steaks, and grilled vegetables.

"We try to think of the games as an event, as more than just a game," says Wehner, 35, a purchasing manager. "We are rabid football fans, and we want to squeeze the most out of the experience."

Much of the morning's menu will be cooked on a Smokey Joe, the smaller-size Weber grill that is a tailgating favorite. Amazingly, the group has not planned the menu - people just bring what they want to cook and everyone shares.

Wehner's role is crucial. He brings the group's "war chests" the two locking storage chests he keeps full of the tailgating necessities: plates, bowls, paper towels, spices, charcoal, lighter, spatulas and other cookware. They arrive in the back of his 1997 Dodge Dakota, the roomy pickup truck he bought specifically for tailgating.

"The idea of getting an SUV went out the window when I saw I couldn't get a charcoal grill in the back," he says.

It's easy to forget something when loading the car on a Sunday morning, but the absent-minded pay a price. Remember, this is a parking lot. No convenience stores are in sight. Running water is not readily available.

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