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Ravens fans take Thanksgiving to the tailgate

On Thursday afternoon, as most of America fusses over basting and trussing, Tracey Despeaux will be pulling into Ravens stadium with a movable feast.

From the back of her purple-painted bus, she'll unload turkey, yams, string beans and corn, pies, ham, rolls and potatoes. She'll arrange the bounty around festive dried husks and pumpkin-scented candles. Then she and the rest of the Pasadena Ravens Roost will gather round fold-out tables to enjoy Thanksgiving.

"Everybody sitting down together," Despeaux says. "That's Thanksgiving to me."

Even in a parking lot.

As Baltimore prepares for its first Thanksgiving NFL game in nearly 50 years, Ravens fans are getting a taste of the fraught dilemma long suffered by pro football fans in Detroit and Dallas, where the teams play holiday games every year.

Do they choose football? Do they choose family? Or, like Despeaux, do they arrange carefully balanced plates with helpings of both turkey and touchdowns?

"A few people are trying to still do the family thing — they don't want to let mom and dad down," she says. "But they're making sure dinner's at 2 or 3 so they can get to the lot on time."

The ante of a historic holiday game is only upped by a match that pits John Harbaugh against the team of his brother, Jim — one of the top teams in the NFL. Folks have dubbed the game the "Harbowl." It's also scheduled for prime time.

Altogether, an event not to be missed for a member of the true Ravens faithful.

To be able to say, "I was there," hundreds of fans are moving Thanksgiving to M&T Bank Stadium.

Others are picking new dates for the holiday to free up game day.

At least one Ravens fan is trying out the eyebrow-raising concept of Thanksgiving brunch. Turkey omelets, anyone?

Gian Alecce is the guy who might be trying that omelet.

For Alecce, Thanksgiving means family, feasting and backyard football with the neighbors. He's pretty sure on Thursday, omelet or not, he can achieve that holiday trinity.

He'll spend the day in the stadium's shadow with tailgating buddies who, after all these years, are like family. They'll gorge on fried, baked and smoked turkey. Then they'll enjoy a little family football — Harbaugh versus Harbaugh.

"It's like a touch football game in the back yard, two brothers going against each other," Alecce says with a bit of a wink. "Very American."

David M. Abrahams had a bit more luck breaking the news to his family earlier this year when he spotted the turkey-day game on the Ravens schedule. "I said I've got some good news and I've got some bad news," he says.

The Abrahams clan, self-proclaimed Ravens diehards, weren't about to miss what could be a once-in-a-lifetime event. So they declared Friday the day for this year's Thanksgiving.

"It's the same deal, the same people, the same festivities. It's just our turkey dinner is 24 hours later," he says. "Why work all day, making the food, one of the most elaborate meals of the year, when half the room has to get up and leave half an hour later?"

On Thursday, Abrahams says, folks can find him at the stadium, forsaking tradition for hot dogs and Boardwalk fries.

The unusual game has also forced bars that would ordinarily close for the day to keep the lights on and inspired the stadium caterers to find a way to squeeze holiday fare onto the menu.

Mother's Federal Hill Grille is one of the area's iconic Ravens bars — along with others including Nick's Fish House and Bill Bateman's Bistro in Havre de Grace — that will open on Thanksgiving just to welcome their perennial game-day crowds.

Mother's owner Dave Rather said he usually shuts the doors on Thanksgiving to give his staff a chance to be with their family. But he's opening at 4 p.m. on Thursday to greet the regulars with turkey dinners and festive autumnal drinks like apple cider with spiced rum.

"We're obviously a huge spot for the Ravens, so we definitely want to be open and be part of that action," Rather says.

At M&T Bank Stadium, fans in the luxury suites and hospitality tents might be able to close their eyes and imagine they're spending the holiday at grandma's.

Caterers are augmenting the usual nachos and crab cakes with honey-roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole and, of course, pumpkin pie.

"Thanksgiving is a very traditional holiday," says Joe Arena, general manager for Aramark at M&T Bank Stadium. "People are used to their traditions. … This could be the start of a new tradition, having Thanksgiving dinner here."

To appease stadium staff who have to work the holiday game, Aramark is giving all of them commemorative tumblers, and they'll have a chance to enter drawings for grills, clothing, autographed memorabilia and even airline tickets.

"You're taking time away from your family to work at the stadium," Arena says. "We respect the fact that they're changing their tradition."

Longtime passionate tailgater Ed Naworol knew there was no way football could trump family — even as much as he loves football. So he and his tailgate buddies plan to get to the game later than usual to meet for after-dinner drinks and dessert. However — he made what he calls his "psychotically good" deep-fried turkeys on Sunday, for the game against Cincinnati.

"Thanksgiving is a big tradition for a lot of families — you can't interrupt that for a football game," he says. "I'm trying to blend both the football family and the home family."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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