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Tailgaters Open Playbook for Elaborate Football Feasts

The founders began as run-of-the-mill tailgaters, eating chips at a card table and grilling hot dogs on a hibachi the year the Arizona Cardinals arrived in town.

But as the transplanted team struggled on the field, the tailgaters upped their game in the parking lot.

Bone-in prime rib, lobster tails, Cuban pork chops, turducken and crab flown in from Baltimore gradually replaced the humble pregame nibbles of their infancy.

As Rob Greer of Gilbert, Ariz., says, "We had to have something to look forward to on game day, and it wasn't always the football. I can say that because I have been a respectful fan and season-ticket holder from the beginning, except for one year."

Nearly two decades later, the spreads are more Bobby Flay than Ronald McDonald.

Every dish, every detail is planned with militarylike precision by the group that dubs itself the House of Cards. Planning is as essential to their tailgate as a playbook is to their team.

Before the season kickoff, the tight-knit group of about two dozen professionals - from mechanical engineer to small-business owner, from software-marketing executive to director of a charitable organization - hold an annual "matrix" meeting. A chef and four sous chefs are assigned to each home game. Game chefs are responsible for planning the elaborate spreads and preparing the main dish. Most often, the menu is themed with food from the opposing team's city.

Chefs then assign each sous chef a recipe or dish, from appetizers and side dishes to dessert. Tradition dictates that most food be prepared at the tailgate. Only desserts, served after each game, can be made at home and transported to the game.

The men, equal parts foodie and football fans, most often are the planners and chefs. Women play a lesser role, and nobody seems to care.

"We have a system that works, and that's all that really matters," says tailgater Ray Tozer of Ahwatukee Foothills, Ariz.

So who's top chef?

Wally Lake of Gilbert, an adventuresome cook who turns often to Cajun great Paul Prudhomme for inspiration.

"These guys think they can challenge me, but I will try to make anything and usually do," says Lake, who taught himself to cook from a how-to cookbook his former wife gave to him during their divorce.

Setting up the tailgate at their "spot" at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., is as carefully orchestrated as the food. Every week, their temporary football city consists of a fully stocked bar, outdoor gas grills, a cookstove and generator, about 10 folding tables, three pop-up tents, misters, satellite dish and television, Cardinals serving dishes and that day's menu, including the game's signature cocktail, printed on a blackboard sign.

Their setup blends in like a cat in a henhouse. They've grown used to gawkers and those who mistake their tailgate for a swanky concession stand.

"People are always coming up to them and asking how much we charge for a plate of food," says Ellen Hennessy of Gilbert. "It's just part of our tailgate experience."

In 2002, the House of Cards received more than just the admiration of envious tailgaters. They were named Jack Daniel's Tailgate Champions, an award given for the best-tasting food, the most festive getup. Their award-winning spread included whiskey in every dish, down to the ice cream and cake for dessert.

Although most tailgaters are content with hamburgers, this food-centric group believes their over-the-top food inspires neighboring tailgaters.

"We've noticed that others around us are elevating their game, and that's a good thing. We like that others copy us," Larry Hennessy says.

Have they ever fumbled?

Oh yeah. Greer forgot the turkey for a Thanksgiving tailgate. Then there was the legendary baklava. This Middle Eastern pastry tasted like crackers and glue, and it was so hard it broke the serving spatula.

"Like the team, we are not always on top of our game," Greer says. "But we always have a good time. Isn't that what football's about?"

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