A bright tablecloth, spread out on a car's hood, displays a colorful array of tempting foods, and hungry guests drift back and forth for another nibble. Just a few yards away, eight horses are galloping madly down the polo field's sideline, their riders' mallets boldly slashing through the air in pursuit of the round white ball.
These patrons of polo enjoy not only the excitement of fast-paced teamwork between horses and riders, but also the fun and relaxation of a ''tailgating'' party close to the action.
Few other spectator sports offer such proximity to the game. At a baseball game in Fenway Park in Boston, you are elbow to elbow with fellow fans, stretching out your arm only to pass hot dogs down the row.
At basketball games in Boston Garden, you stay glued to your seat for fear of tumbling head over heels down the steep aisles.
But at Sunday afternoon polo games at Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Mass., spectators roam the sidelines freely and park their cars right next to the field , which is three times the length of that for football.
Set up cozily among clusters of people and cards, both the elegant and the simple picnic lunches are movable feasts.
Creating a festive atmosphere is the first requirement of tailgating, and the pastoral scene of green grass and sleek horses is the perfect backdrop.
The menu can be elaborate and extend through several formal courses, or it can be an eye-catching buffet of finger foods and hors d'oeuvres.
Some tailgaters sit down to china dishes and sterling goblets, but most swarm around gourmet picnics, peeking into wicker baskets full of treats.
Food that is not too messy to eat gracefully, and that is relatively independent of utensils, is easiest for serious polo-watchers.
Cheese and crackers and dips are basics. Napkin-lined baskets can display muffins, breads, and wafers next to dishes of stuffings and spreads.
An ice chest or cooler is essential for cold drinks as well as for storing plastic bags of ice. Beverages should be refreshing and light: strawberry lemonade and decaffeinated mint iced tea are delightful contrasts in flavor and texture.
Glass drinking vessels need not be avoided, as the polo field turf is quite forgiving and resilient, compared with a linoleum kitchen floor.
Portable food is appropriate for spectators who follow the play up and down the sidelines. The ''walking'' stuffed apple recipe, below, serves as a hand-held container that is both edible and tidy.
Syrian pouches of pita bread are good at ''half time,'' when all spectators are invited onto the field to stamp down the divots of turf kicked up by the horses during the play.
After 15 minutes of clumps of earth being replaced into the putting-green surface, the field is ready for the last three chukkers (periods of play) of the game.
All the recipes here are easy to prepare a day or so in advance.
Plenty of napkins and bags for collecting trash are final reminders.
Myopia games start at 3 p.m. each Sunday and will run through October. Lazy afternoons of eating, socializing, and watching polo could easily become a habit. Here are some ideas for your picnics. Pita Pocket Sandwiches
Buy the ''mini''-size plain or whole wheat pita breads to serve as edible containers for various stuffings. Three suggestions for tuna, tabbouleh, and chicken salad follow. Provide serving spoons so that each person can spoon the mixture of his choice into the pita bread. Tuna Mixture
1 large can tuna, drained
2 carrots, peeled, shredded
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 cup raw broccoli florets, chopped
1/4 cup chopped macadamia nuts
4 large sprigs parsley, diced
1 tablespoon minced chives
Stir just enough mayonnaise into above ingredients to hold mixture together. Season to taste with pepper and salt. Use salt sparingly, as macadamia nuts will add salt. Keep well chilled. Tabbouleh Mixture
2 cups uncooked bulgur wheat
4 cups boiling water
3 tomatoes, diced
5 scallions, sliced
2 tablespoons minced chives
1/4 cup minced mint leaves
1/2 cup minced parsley
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled, optional
In bowl cover bulgur with boiling water and soak 30 minutes. Spoon into strainer and press out moisture with the back of a spoon. Combine bulgur with tomatoes, scallions, chives, mint, parsley, and cumin. Blend well.
Mix in lemon juice and olive oil until well blended, then fold in feta cheese. Refrigerate several hours to allow flavors to blend. Chicken Salad Mixture
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 chicken breasts, cooked, cubed
1 or 2 stalks celery, chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup halved green grapes
Mix lemon juice and honey into mayonnaise in small bowl. In large bowl, mix chicken, celery, and walnuts. Add mayonnaise mixture and coat thoroughly. Gently fold in grape halves. Keep refrigerated until serving time. Then season with salt, pepper, and dash of paprika. 'Boursin' Cheese
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried chives
1 teaspoon caraway seed
1 teaspoon dried dill weed
1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley
Mix dry ingredients into softened cream cheese with a fork or slotted spoon until well blended. Mold into a round cake shape on the serving plate to be used and grind fresh black pepper over the top to cover. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight before serving. Fruit Dip
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup sour cream
1/4-1/2 cup brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon nutmeg
Mix ingredients together, varying amounts of the last 3 items according to taste. Serve in a bowl surrounded by slices of kiwi fruit, strawberries, apples, pears, bananas, and grapes. Stuffed Apples
1 cup cottage cheese
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup mayonnaise
For each apple: cut stem-top, slice off, and save. Core almost to the bottom, to make a bowl out of the apple. Scoop out pulp and set aside in a bowl. Place apple lid and hollowed-out part in a pan of cold water to prevent discoloration.
Chop up apple pulp and mix in cottage cheese, raisins, and nuts. Mix in mayonnaise.
Stuff mixture back into apples and secure lid to the top with a toothpick. It's ready to be eaten while you are on the go. Strawberry Lemonade
1 1/2 pound fresh rhubarb (3 1/4 cups)
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup strawberries
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups water
Slice rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Place in saucepan with 3 cups water. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid. Add sugar to rhubarb juice and stir until dissolved.
Hull and slice strawberries. Puree in blender with lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups water.
Pour puree into cooled rhubarb juice and pour over ice cubes in glasses. Garnish with lemon slices. Serves 8 to 10.