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While the Chargers and 49ers cram in their last practices before the big day, their home cities shift into party mode

Louise Stellar knows that when the biggest sporting event of the year rolls around - the Super Bowl - her catering business will thrive. Especially this year since her hometown team, the San Diego Chargers, made it to their first Super Bowl.

``It's been crazier than the Fourth of July and New Year's,'' says Ms. Stellar, office manager at French Gourmet Catering Company in San Diego. ``The community is definitely in a more celebrative mood since our team won.''

When the Chargers returned to San Diego Jan. 15 after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 70,000 fans filled a football stadium to welcome the team home from its victory in Pittsburgh. Stellar says French Gourmet welcomed the team home too, complete with a 40-pound chocolate-mousse cake in the shape of a football, with ``enough sugar to win the Super Bowl.''

Stellar says hosts tend to order at the last minute, especially for such an informal occasion.

Casual foods ranging from Santa Fe roll-ups (flour tortillas filled with chicken curry or cold cuts and mayo or mustard) and buffalo wings, to elegant trays of assorted mini-croissants, bacon-cheddar potatoes, and salmon, are foods French Gourmet plans to prepare for game-day parties.

``Catering is the way to go if you're going to have a lot of people over because nobody wants to get stuck in the kitchen,'' Stellar says. ``It's like being a guest in your own home.''

Up the coast from San Diego, another catering company is also preparing for the game - in San Francisco.

Bruce McKinney, director of MacArthur Park Catering Service, is gearing up for two barbeques and last-minute orders. The menu will include chicken, ribs, salad, and hamburgers. Mr. MacKinney says sporting events are unlike other parties they cater.

``Most of the parties have American tailgate-type food; nothing fancy,'' he says. ``It's the only event where everybody's acting rambunctious. There's a lot of yelling and screaming going on for the home team. But it's fun, more casual, and festive.''

McKinney remembers when Super Bowl XIX was played at Stanford Stadium at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., in 1985. His company catered to a slew of tailgate and private parties that year. But he figures that this year, since the game will be played in Miami, the parties will be more extravagant there.

``Everybody loves the 49ers, and they have a lot of support here. But it would be better to be where the game is being played ... where the bigger parties are going to be,'' he says.

Reports from Miami confirm that the city has already shifted into high-gear party mode. Gene's Catering is not only preparing for Super Bowl gatherings, but for many pre-parties.

On Tuesday, it catered to 4,000 people along the grass-lined waters of South Beach. Bright awnings, carts, and umbrellas decorated the Boardwalk for the event. The meal tab: $100.

Jo-Ann D'Arcy, vice president of operations at Gene's Catering says game-day foods will be drawn from the South American, Latin, and Caribbean influences that are so prevalent now in the Miami area.

Foods such as grilled ribs, corn bread, grilled mahi-mahi tacos, cock fritters with pineapple salsa, and a variety of gourmet pizzas will be offered at their events. Papayas, mangos, and coconuts will also be on the super-bowl menu, probably one of the most exotic ones anywhere.

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