A vase of fresh roses from the garden, flanked by red candles in hurricane lamps, stood at the center of the two tables Bill and Ruth Clark set for their dozen guests Saturday. The seemingly endless supply of food spread across the linen tablecloths included homemade crab dip, cucumber cream soup, taco salad, a cold meat platter, rolls, fresh fruit, chocolate chip bars, beer, ice tea and soft drinks.

But instead of entertaining at their Chevy Chase home, the Clarks, as is their custom this time of year, threw the party in a parking lot next to the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium a few hours before the football game between Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh.

"I am really more of a basketball nut than a football nut. But football games mean tailgate parties," said Ruth Clark. A 1942 Maryland graduate, Clark said she and her husband have been hosting parties at Maryland football games for nearly 25 years.

For hundreds of Maryland fans, the tailgate, or trunk party, is as much a part of the football season as the games themselves. Each home game they turn the campus parking lots into an open air festival of food, drink and socializing.

"We just go all out. This is our social life," said Irene Rhoda of Timonium. "My husband is really upset because he had to be out of town this week. It is the first game he has missed in 10 years," she said.

Like the Clarks and Rhodas, many regular tailgaters park in the same spot at every game. They get to know each other and circulate from party to party sharing food, drinks and game predictions.

"It is important after a week of working to be able to deal with people in a less stressful atmosphere," said Bonnie Williams, a Montgomery County social worker and 1972 Maryland graduate.

Although Williams is a regular at the Clarks' parties, her brother Gordon Williams and his friend Tina Davenport were getting their first exposure to a tailgate party. "I had heard stories about these parties, but I didn't really believe it," Davenport said. "I still don't."

Tailgate parties at Byrd Stadium range from a couple sharing a bag of fast food on the hood of a car to complete buffets for dozens of people.

Bill and Barbara Van Dyke of Greenbelt spread their table for a group of 40 season ticket holders who get together for pregame and postgame parties and sit together in the stadium.

The centerpiece of the Van Dykes' table was a sculpted Diamondback Terrapin--the school mascot--made of baked bread. The terrapin was a wedding gift from friends who attend Maryland tailgate parties.

The Van Dykes' menu Saturday included chicken spiced with Old Bay Seasoning, one of Barbara's specialties, cashews, chips and mimosas made with a mixture of champagne, orange juice and Grand Marnier.

"We divide up the cooking," said Bill Van Dyke.

"It is not planned out, it is just whatever people bring. It is usually just finger food--chicken or snacks, nothing too complicated that we can't throw it in the trunk," Barbara Van Dyke said.

The parties begin as early as 8 a.m., like the one hosted by Dick and Terry Farr that began with coffee, juice, rolls and Bloody Marys, and go on to include lunch.

For that meal the Farrs served Italian fare with antipasto and Biscotti cookies as well as barbecued beef and plenty of beer.

Some tailgate parties start the night before the game. Harold and Phyllis Prickett, who travel from Oakland, Md., to see each home game, said they used to spend the night in the stadium parking lot until their daughter bought a house in Riverdale. Now they park their camper at her house and come to the stadium a few hours before each game. Even the cold weather common at November football games doesn't prevent most Maryland fans from having their tailgate parties. They said they just bundle up and change the menu to suit the weather. "I made 35 pounds of chili for one game last year," Barbara Van Dyke said.

"We just serve stews and heated side dishes and maybe some warm apple cider with brandy in it," said Williams. "The van helps too. The people who are not used to the weather can go in there to warm up."

But even the hardiest Maryland fans say they give up tailgate parties during basketball season. They do not, however, give up parties. They just continue at restaurants.

For now, the Clarks and their entourage look forward to tailgating and planning the next party as soon as each game ends. "I will be on the phone with Ruth by Tuesday to get next week's assignment," Williams said.