Back Creek BBQ is located in Annapolis. The location was incorrect in Wednesday's Food section. (Published 10/02/1999)

You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to secure a good parking spot for tailgating at Redskins Stadium. When the gates open at 9--four hours before kickoff--there's already a line of cars, SUVs and Suburbans waiting to race to the most coveted tailgating spots.

In parking lot F3--arguably the liveliest tailgating scene--the first sets of parallel yellow lines to be snatched up are those bordering the east curb, fortuitously located next to a grassy expanse of trees. Tailgaters value this stretch because they can spread out lawn chairs and picnic tables, have ample room for milling about and, well, can quickly access nature.

Within minutes, smoke wafts across the lot as fans in all manner of Redskins paraphernalia fire up grills, set up Bloody Mary bars and rig awnings.

"If you're smart, you get here early and relax," says Joe Ponton, who by 9:45 the morning of the Redskins home opener against Dallas is already grilling shish kebabs and Cajun-marinated yellowfin tuna steaks.

Tailgate menus have evolved over the years, from chips and dip to hamburgers and hot dogs to carefully orchestrated feasts exhibiting culinary prowess, not to mention hubris. Simple is fine, elaborate is better. Cheapskates don't last long. And when one-upmanship arises, which it often does, it serves everyone's gustatory delight.

"The only limitation is that the food has to fit in the van," stipulates Janet Jones, her dangly Redskins earrings swaying as she schleps food to the portable picnic table.

The only other absolute--and this is a big one--is that by no means can you bring the same thing week after week. The food should always be different. Somelthing special. A surprise, tailgaters insist.

"You gotta get a little crazy with the food, especially on opening day," says Mike Mendes, a 30-year-old airline pilot sitting back with his buddies, eager to enjoy a breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese, grilled beef tenderloin and beer served by chef Jeb Boone.

Shortly before 11, Karen Jones, of Annandale, is wiping breakfast crumbs from her lap. Jones, who married into a tailgating family, likens the event to dining by candlelight at home. "It's something special that you don't get to do that often. After all, there are usually only eight home games each season."

Jones, a munitions control specialist for the U.S. State Department, prepares an elaborate--and enviable--breakfast spread prior to every home day game, complete with mimosas or Bloody Marys and homemade quiche--Swiss cheese with fresh rosemary and mushrooms sauteed in Chardonnay--or crab cakes on English muffins with hollandaise sauce or an omelet bar.

One of Jones's steadfast rules is to make sure that everyone has something to eat right away. "We always do a little appetizer, paired to match the main dish, of course," she says.

Another must for Jones is postgame tailgating. After the game, Jones and hundreds of others fire up the grill again--a time-honored tradition for tailgaters savvy enough to settle back in lawn chairs until the gridlock subsides. She may break out an entirely new menu: beer-soaked bratwursts, Brunswick stew or chicken Kiev as well as side dishes--grilled asparagus or zucchini. Throughout the lot, coffee and hot chocolate, spiked for those who are not designated drivers, are a must. Some folks even bring TVs to watch the next game.

"If we lose, well, the tailgating lessens the pain," sighs Steve Smith, a 45-year-old program manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Perhaps nowhere is the spread more impressive--and more eagerly anticipated--in lot F3 than at the site of "the mystery tailgate." "The concept of the mystery tailgater just kind of happened," says Smith. He and his buddy, Bobby Jones, a subscriber to the philosophy that you're-only-as-old-as-you-think-you-are, began tailgating rather modestly in the '80s. "We got together one day and figured out exactly how we could share the experience with our friends," shrugs Jones.

Smith and Jones purchase three season tickets. The third seat is rotated among friends known as "lucky mystery tailgaters," who take turns "hosting" the gang of Smith's and Jones's buddies. "We provide the transportation, tables, chairs and the grill. They provide the food and libations," explains Smith.

The guys invest a lot in the lucky mystery tailgater. First of all, it's a $55 ticket, so anything resembling a cheap spread is intolerable.

And many in the gang put in so much effort to get to the tailgate early that Smith and Jones feel the menu should reward them. John Pew drives hours every season to attend the annual Cowboys-Redskins tailgate, then retires to a sports bar to watch the game.

Most guest chefs are attuned to what is required. Smith and Jones note that their tailgates have improved over the years, though occasionally an invitee will revert to burgers and potato salad. "That's okay. Those mystery tailgaters just may not be asked back," Jones quips.

"One guy last year brought pork on a stick. He placed really high. He'll be back," he adds.

But it's tough to top Don Mastroni, who clinched the rights to this season's opener with last year's bourbon-marinated beef tenderloin stuffed with smoked lobster. Mastroni competes with an unfair edge. No ordinary tailgater, Mastroni is the owner and executive chef of Back Creek Barbecue Co., a mobile catering operation based in Wilmington, Del.

The voice of experience, Mastroni seeks food that's appealing to the eye, easy to serve, fun to eat and allows you to walk around. Finger licking is a common sight in these parts when Mastroni is around.

"Today was probably the best ever," sighs Smith contentedly on the day of the home opener. "It's simply a meat orgy."

Mastroni deftly tends marinated racks of lamb that have grilled slowly over charcoal for two hours. Before noon, he piles the lamb on a picnic table decorated with Redskins collectibles, then douses it with a mint syrup. Next to the quickly vanishing mound of lamb are piles of ribs slathered with Mastroni's secret-recipe bottled barbecue sauce. And, of course, there's his spice-rubbed whole chicken that's been oh-so delicately perched upon an opened beer can and grilled to a moist tenderness.

"There's no one thing that stands out foodwise," says Jones, reminiscing about his favorites from past years, from enchiladas to crab-stuffed mushrooms to cold-weather fare such as crab bisque, spiced shrimp and chili. "But Don, he's a ringer," says Jones smiling --especially when folks want to go upscale, as on opening day or at playoffs.

But if the gang's mood is "down and dirty," as Jones says, they roast a whole pig.

Next door, a pig head stuck on a stake summons regulars to Rick Ferrante's traditional gig. It's a beacon of sorts. "We do it up right," boasts Ferrante, as evidenced by his regular crowd of 75 to 100 gathered around the roast piglet each and every home game. If there's no roast piggy, then he serves porcetta, or Italian-style pork roast. And he always grills Italian sausages from Nick's Sausage Co., which Ferrante and his brothers, Nick and Mario, founded in Hyattsville. Rick Ferrante's favorite side dish is (surprise!) red-skinned potato salad. There's always lots Rick Ferrante's favorite side dish--red-skinned potato salad (surprise!)--along with good humor and libations when he is around.

Ferrante's friends have partied next to the mystery tailgating guys since the days at RFK Stadium. "It's like we're neighbors having a backyard cookout," Jones says. Ferrante agrees. "We're just one big happy family."

Karen's Breakfast Crab Cake Sandwiches

(6 servings)

Karen Jones says the faint of heart should not make hollandaise sauce over a grill. If your crowd prefers hand-held food, substitute sliced cheese for the hollandaise sauce and add a second English muffin half. She suggests using a mild cheese, such as provolone. And don't forget the moist towelettes.

1 tablespoon finely minced parsley

2 scallions, finely minced

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

2 ounces cream cheese, softened

12 ounces crab meat, picked over

1 cup crushed cracker crumbs (about 24 crackers), preferably Ritz or Club

1 large egg

Lemony Hollandaise Sauce (see recipe below) or 6 slices mild white cheese, such as provolone

3 English muffins, split

Preheat the grill or heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat.

In a large bowl, stir together the parsley, scallions, Old Bay seasoning, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and cream cheese. Add the crab and mix well. Stir in the cracker crumbs. Add the egg and mix to combine. The mixture should be doughlike.

Form the crab mixture into 6 patties as wide as the English muffin. Grill or saute until cooked through, about 5 minutes per side.

To assemble, place the English muffin halves, split side down, on the grill. Toast until light brown, about 3 minutes. Place 1 crab cake on each English muffin half and drizzle with the hollandaise sauce or top with a slice of cheese.

Per serving (based on 1/2 English muffin and about 2 tablespoons hollandaise sauce): 416 calories, 16 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 28 gm fat, 197 mg cholesterol, 13 gm saturated fat, 1,081 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Lemony Hollandaise Sauce

(Makes 1 1/4 cups)

Use as much or as little lemon juice as you like, but Karen Jones points out that a lemony flavor makes a wonderful accompaniment to seafood.

3 egg yolks

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

8 ounces (2 sticks) butter, melted and slightly cooled

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Transfer the butter into another container, preferably a squeezable one. Set aside to cool. Wipe out the saucepan. Add the egg yolks and lemon juice and whisk. Transfer the pan to medium heat and whisk constantly until the whisk leaves a trail in the yolk-juice mixture. Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle the butter into the pan.

Per serving (based on 12): 151 calories, 1 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 4 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Back Creek Lamb Rack

(4 servings)

These lamb chops, concocted by Don Mastroni, make wonderful finger food. They were a smashing success at the Redskins' season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

The recipe can easily be multiplied to feed a crowd. Mastroni adds apple jelly to the mint syrup and then simmers it for more than an hour, but this simpler version is just as flavorful.

For the lamb:

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup teriyaki sauce

12-ounce can cola

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon minced garlic

About 2 tablespoons kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste

2 lamb racks, preferably New Zealand, frenched*

For the mint syrup:

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup fresh mint, cut into thin strips

For the lamb: In a large bowl, stir together the oil, vinegar, teriyaki sauce, cola, rosemary, chives, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Add the lamb and turn to coat. Cover tightly and refrigerate, turning occasionally, 12 to 24 hours.

Preheat the grill on high or preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the lamb from the marinade and transfer to the preheated grill or a roasting pan. Discard the marinade. Grill or roast the lamb until cooked to desired doneness. If grilling, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours for medium-rare (145 degrees); if roasting, about 30 minutes for medium-rare.

*NOTE: Most supermarkets with a butcher counter either carry frenched racks of lamb or you can special-order them. Properly prepared racks will have the fat and meat removed from the top half of the rack, and the exposed bones will be scraped clean.

For the mint syrup: In a small saucepan over low heat, stir together the sugar and water and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the chopped mint and cook, stirring occasionally, until the syrup is slightly reduced, about 10 minutes. (For a more intense mint flavor, simmer up to 1 hour.) Remove from the heat. Carefully pour the syrup into a strainer set over a bowl. Discard the mint. (May be covered and refrigerated up to 3 days.)

Add the mint strips to the syrup and stir to combine. Set aside.

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board and slice into individual chops. Brush each chop with the mint syrup. Serve immediately.

Per serving with 1 teaspoon mint syrup: 666 calories, 36 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 56 gm fat, 163 mg cholesterol, 22 gm saturated fat, 458 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Bourbon Marinade

(Makes about 3 1/2 cups)

This all-purpose marinade won Don Mastroni the right to host the tailgate party at the Redskins season opener. The bourbon "tends to be a bit overwhelming"; reserve the marinade for cuts of beef or pork, such as tenderloin or flank steak.

1 cup olive oil

1 cup teriyaki sauce

About 3 scallions, coarsely chopped

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup bourbon (preferably Jack Daniel's)

2 tablespoons coarse grain black pepper

In a medium bowl, stir together all of the ingredients. Marinate beef or pork for an hour or up to overnight, then grill according to your taste.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 58 calories, trace protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 8 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

RULES FOR FOOTBALL

* Ardent tailgaters arrive hours before the game to stake out their favorite parking spot, sit back, relax and laugh at the thousands of gamegoers soon to be stuck in traffic.

* Finger food is where it's at--it's easy to serve and fun to eat. When else is licking your fingers in public and waving hello with a lamb chop in hand sanctioned?

* Always offer something different--surprise your guests and neighbors. Have an appetizer waiting for when people arrive. And don't be cheap. Bring more food than you could ever imagine being appropriate--you can never have enough.

* Food should fit the weather. If it's 70 degrees and sunny, throw some shrimp on the barbie. If it's 30 degrees and snowy, bring the camp stove and heat up the crab bisque. Same goes for the libations.

* Adult beverages make the tailgate. Bring plenty of beer (preferably micro- or home-brew) and fixings for Bloody Marys. While you're at it, vodka and Jack Daniel's make good pregame drinks and you'll need something to spike the ubiquitous thermoses of coffee or hot chocolate after the game. But always pick a designated driver.

* Don't forget utensils and an awning. Eating potato salad out of a paper towel dampens the fun almost as much as standing in the rain.

* Always bring tables and chairs. Leaning against car bumpers is not exactly relaxing and can be dirty. And only losers tailgate from inside their car.

* Break out every piece of home-team paraphernalia that you own. Redskins plates? Bring 'em on!

* Postgame tailgating lessens the despair that accompanies defeat. It also allows the traffic to subside and offers an excuse for everyone but the designated driver to have "one more for the Gipper." Besides, you can force warmed-up leftovers on your friends and still receive praise.

* Everybody's tailgated at one time or another. Maybe it's a Redskins game or a chic steeplechase race, or maybe it's pulling up the car to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. What is your favorite tailgate event, large or small? And what do you like to eat? Got any tips? Join Food writers Walter Nicholls and Renee Schettler online at 1 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.