What do sea-bass ceviche, gochujang-glazed eggplant buns, and Montreal smoked-meat sandwiches have in common? They’re all concessions you can now enjoy while attending a Major League Baseball game.
For more than a century and a half, baseball has been an integral part of American culture, and the sport has its own intriguing foodways. Certain items—hot dogs, peanuts, beer, Cracker Jack—have come to be a central part of baseball lore, but that wasn’t the case when baseball first started. Nor is it always the case now. In the past 30 years, baseball stadiums have gone from serving a few humble snacks, to showcasing world-renowned chef creations, regional specialties, and offerings that are vegetarian, Kosher, and everything in between—including caloric gut-bombs like BBQ pork parfait and fried Twinkies.
In his new book, The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Dogs, Bennett Jacobstein outlines the backstory behind ballpark classics, as well as the vast assortment of food on offer at Major League Baseball stadiums today.
“Baseball is an American tradition, and the slowness of it means that most people don’t mind missing a half-inning to go and get food,” he explains. “Humphrey Bogart once said, ‘A hot dog at a ball game beats roast beef at the Ritz.’ Then there was that 1970s Chevrolet commercial: ‘Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet, they go together in the good ol’ U.S.A.’”
Jacobstein is a retired librarian, lifelong baseball enthusiast, part-time ballpark concessions worker, and food-bank volunteer. When he discovered nobody had written ballpark cuisine, he made it his mission to compile a reference guide, traveling to the research library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums across North America during the 2014 season. The result is a book that’s part historical account, part stadium culinary tour.
We sat down with Jacobstein to learn how we stadium food has evolved through the years. He helped us separate baseball food fact from fiction, breaking down the truth about hot dogs, as well as who’s really running today’s baseball concessions. Here are five common misconceptions about ballpark grub.
1. Hot dogs, peanuts, and soda have always been ballpark food.
In the 1800s, what was sold at baseball games was mostly sandwiches, ice cream, and lemonade. During his research, Jacobstein discovered references to ham sandwiches and cheese sandwiches as 17th-century offerings.
In fact, one pioneering salesman, Harry M. Stevens, is the reason hot dogs, soda, and peanuts are baseball concessions today. “Harry Stevens was the Babe Ruth of ballpark vending,” Jacobstein explains. “He was the first to come up with the business model. Before him, in the 19th century, there weren’t any organized concessions; it was probably someone in the neighborhood who just happened to go into the game and sell.” (Photo: Rina Pitucci/Flickr)
2. Harry Stevens invented the hot dog.
“Not quite,” says Jacobstein. “There was a story that in 1901 it was a cold day and his ice cream wasn’t selling, so he decided to send his people out to the local German butcher shops in New York that all sold this Dachshund sausage, which is kind of the shape of a hot dog, and then he came up with the idea to put it in a bun so that people could hold it in their hands at the game. And he said, ‘Get your Dachshund sausages!’ and there was a sports cartoonist named Todd Dorkin for the New York Post, who supposedly couldn’t spell Dachshund, so he changed it to ‘Get your hot dogs!’
“A lot of places still report that as fact. But there’s no evidence of that cartoon ever. And it turns out, that person wasn’t even working for the New York Post then. But in reality, no one’s actually sure. There’s a number of other stories of how the hot dog might have been invented. There’s one myth that says someone was selling sausages at the St. Louis World’s Fair sometime in the early 1900s, and he gave his customers white gloves to eat them with but they weren’t returning the gloves. His brother-in-law was a baker, and he asked him to improvise a bun. Putting it in a bun and calling it a ‘hot dog’—it’s in dispute when that happened. Although Harry Stevens was the one who popularized hot dogs and made them an all-American food.” (Photo: HSHDD)
3. Baseball has always been a wholesome, family activity.
Thanks to beer, baseball used to have a rowdy, uncouth, working class-only image. “There was actually a baseball league called the American Association that was around from 1881 to 1891, and it was founded by a brewer with the purpose of selling beer—it was nicknamed The Beer and Whiskey League,” says Jacobstein. “At one point, in the early 1900s, a lot of fans were really rowdy, and the baseball commissioner wanted to make it more of a wholesome family event, so he tried to ban beer. For a number of years, during the late-19th century, early-20th century, and during Prohibition, alcohol was officially banned.” (Photo: The Deadball Era)
4. Each ballpark controls its own concessions.
“From around the turn of the 20th century until the 1980s, ballpark food was mostly hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, popcorn, peanuts, and ice cream,” Jacobstein said. A wider gamut of food offerings didn’t come into play until the 1980s and 1990s, he explains, when a dozen new stadiums, the 1994 baseball strike, and a rising interest in food prompted ball clubs to expand their dining options. That was around the same time these companies obtained concessions contracts.
“There were also 12 new stadiums built in the ’90s that could design their space to be built more optimally for concessions,” says Jacobstein. “And then in ’95 they were really trying to bring fans back, and that also led to having expanded food as another way to attract people. Ball clubs realized that if people are there, they’re going to eat, and it’s a way to make more revenue by expanding the food offerings,” he says.
“These companies are huge; they also operate other sporting arenas, minor league stadiums, and airports. There’s no correlation between which of the six vendors the stadium has and the type of offerings they have. Stadiums that have nothing but the basics—no regional food, no local restaurants, nothing exotic—are often run by the same one of the six companies that offer tons of different options.” (Photo: Brian Halvorsen/Flickr)
5. Cracker Jack is a mainstay at all ballparks.
Cracker Jack is famous for its association with baseball, but in reality, not every stadium sells the snack. Throughout history, there have been a few stadiums that have not sold it at various points in time. “The Great American Ballpark, home to the Cincinnati Reds, doesn’t sell Cracker Jack—it sells Crunch ‘n Munch instead,” Jacobstein points out.
This hasn’t been the only time in history that historically significant Cracker Jack has been replaced by the milder, more buttery Crunch ‘n Munch. In 2004, Yankees Stadium made the same swap, and the decision left fans stunned and upset, leading to a retraction of the plan just several months later. “I don’t think Cracker Jack and Crunch ‘n Munch are really popular anymore,” Jacobstein acknowledges. “For many years, peanuts and Cracker Jack were the two main snack foods at a game, but now they’ve been replaced by garlic fries and nachos.” (Photo: HermanTurnip/Flickr)
6. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written for the ballpark.
Everybody’s favorite line, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”? That wasn’t written with the seventh inning stretch in mind. “The song was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth, who had never been to a baseball game,” Jacobstein says. “He was on a subway train and saw a poster for a baseball game. He was married at the time to a woman who was a very popular vaudeville performer, and she was the first to perform it. It was in vaudeville acts and at movie theaters during intermission. It got rewritten in 1927. [Ed. note: The chorus, the only part of the song most of us know, remained unchanged.] The first time it was ever played at a baseball game wasn’t until 1934. Now every stadium plays it at the seventh inning stretch, but that didn’t really happen until the 1970s.” Photo: Salim Virji/Flickr)
Bonus: The best stadium concessions, according to Jacobstein
“Not meaning to sound prejudiced since I’m a Giants fan, but I love AT&T. They do a really good job, especially if you’re a tourist coming to San Francisco. They have Edsel Fong Chinese food, Ghirardelli sundaes, a North Beach stand that serves a garlic chicken sandwich and meatballs, an Anchor Steam stall that has clam chowder, and even a crab sandwich. Seattle’s Safeco Field also has a lot of variety. There’s a local restaurateur, Ethan Stowell, and they hired him to have four or five different stands there. Citi Field in New York has several well-known restaurants—Shake Shack, Parm, Blue Smoke, and Two Boots Pizza. Surprisingly, the Washington Nationals have the best offerings of vegetarian food. Two different places offer cauliflower sandwiches.”
In terms of extreme stadium food, Jacobstein thinks the stunts are mostly for publicity. “They’re mostly used by minor league teams to gain media attention.” Here he lists some notable offerings:
- Texas Rangers Boomstick, a two-foot-foot long hot dog
- Chicago White Sox Eight-scoop sundae
- New York Mets Pastrami Dog
- Colorado Rockies Rocky Mountain Oysters
- Cleveland Indians’ Chocolate sauce and whipped cream nachos