The days of subsisting on nothing but rubbery dogs during a baseball game have gone the way of the spitball as ballpark concessions step up to the plate with creative offerings.
Though peanuts aren't passé at Major League stadiums, they're somewhat overshadowed by the smorgasbord of eats the modern fan expects. And in ballparks in other countries, you might have a hard time finding peanuts at all.
Buy Me Some Squid and a Bento Box
Even though it's known as America's Pastime, baseball isn't limited to the U.S.
Sean MacDonald, a Singapore-based correspondent for Stadium Journey Magazine, says the sport is big business in Japan.
“If you really like baseball, you’d be hard pressed to find a more devoted fan base than in Japan,” he says. “When Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, it was confirmation to the local fans that their players are the best and know how to play the game properly.”
A dozen teams comprise Japan's major league, Nippon Professional Baseball. Each has a hardy group of supporters called oendan, whose active rooting turns the term “spectator sport” on its ear.
The oenden make baseball a raucous endeavor, with coordinated cheering in the bleachers led by designated captains.
“These fans dress up in team shirts and caps and go to every single home and road game and sit in the outfield, singing songs and banging noisemakers while their team is batting,” MacDonald says. “Each player has his own tune, and the fans perform regardless of the score.”
When hungry, the oendan are likely to score compartmentalized bento boxes, stuffed with small bites of anything from glazed eel to pickled plums. “Some of these bento boxes are very elaborate and can cost 1,500 yen -- about $15,” MacDonald adds.
MacDonald prefers the food at the Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, home of the Rakuten Golden Eagles. “Most of their concession stands are outside the seating area so you can walk around without bumping into people, and there is great variety,” he says.
Kleenex Stadium is in Sendai, a city that loves cow tongue, known as gyutan. Grilled squid and takoyaki (deep-fried balls of minced octopus and green onion) are also common.
“I suppose if you are not used to Japan, you might find grilled squid or octopus balls wild, but they're conventional fare throughout the country, so not surprising to find at the ballpark,” MacDonald adds.
‘O’ Say Can You Eat?
At Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md., home of the Os (as the natives say), there's nary an octopus ball to be found. But eateries in Baltimore do have a tendency to pile crab on anything and everything.
Camden Yards is no exception, where even french fries are served up Charm City-style, slathered in hot crab dip and spiked with Old Bay, a favorite local spice blend.
“That's Baltimore,” says Josh Distenfeld, executive chef
for all of Oriole Park's restaurants and concessions, who adds that
crab-covered everything reflects local pride. “We introduced the crab waffle
fries this year, and sales are through the roof. Our crab mac-and-cheese dog is
our No. 1-selling signature hot dog, and the crab cakes here sell like hot
Distenfeld predicts he'll order well over 40,000 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat for the park this year. “It's not a fad, it's not a touristy thing – they love it here,” he says.
He sources local crab from the Chesapeake Bay, but has to supplement it with other sources. And while he doesn't think O's fans could exactly clean the bay of crabs, “It would still put a small dent in it,” he says.
These days, feeding the modern masses requires adhering to various dietary requirements, so there's plenty of shellfish-free fare available within striking distance of the diamond.
The new Tako Korean BBQ has street food-stye Korean-barbecue tacos, made with corn tortillas for the gluten-averse, as well as gluten-free pad thai and vegetarian dumplings. Even Boog's BBQ, the classic Camden smokehouse owned by former Oriole first baseman “Boog” Powell, offers gluten-free buns.
In general, the ballpark is upping the ante when it comes to concessions.
“People are savvy,” Distenfeld adds. “With the 24-hour barrage of what's on the Food Network and shows like Chopped, people understand food and they really know what they want when they come out now.”
“You still have your basic items – hot dogs, hamburgers, peanuts and Cracker Jacks,” he says, “but for people who want a different twist or a little local flavor, we have those options.”
Brave New (Concession) World
Braves fans in Atlanta have access to some of the city's best burgers. Turner Field now has three H&F Burger stands, which specialize in hand-cut fries, ice-cold Coca-Cola and the sought-after sandwiches created by Linton Hopkins, Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chef of 2009.
What's so revolutionary about a burger? The buns are delivered daily from Holeman & Finch's bakery, and the burger – a double decker – comes loaded with H&F's own pickles, mustard and ketchup.
These same storied burgers are tough to nab outside of the ballpark. At Hopkins' Atlanta restaurant, Holeman & Finch Public House, only 24 are sold per night, and not until 10 p.m. (The burgers often sell out, via pre-order, before the magic hour even arrives.)
The stadium H&F Burger crew serves that number many times over daily. But Hopkins, a lifelong and devoted Braves fan, is as nostalgic about baseball as he is burgers.
"Baseball is America's game, the Braves are America's team, and this is America's burger… and they should be together," he says.
Besides, when it comes to ballpark food, there's no excuse for a rubbery dog.
“Chef strongly believes that there is no real excuse for eating bad food,” says Hopkins' communications assistant Maggie Niehaus. “A chef's job is about bringing good food to the masses, and there are masses and masses at ball games.
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- The Pour That Refreshes: Why H&F Burger Chef Linton Hopkins Takes His Fountain Coke Very Seriously