The only thing more American than baseball is disgusting novelty foods, and the only thing more American than disgusting novelty foods is the disgusting novelty foods served at baseball games. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, verbatim, I’m in no way paraphrasing here, in the Declaration of Independence, grilling dogs and burgers in your backyard is entry-level dining patriotism. Nothing tastes better than when it’s at risk of dripping all over the unfortunate stranger in the seat in front of yours, ideally accompanied by a vendor-thrown beer that flew precariously close to your skull.
The inaugural, sold-out MLB FoodFest, held April 21–22 in Manhattan, invited ticket holders ($25, or $40 with beer) to sample thirty hyper-indulgent regional delicacies, one from each ballpark — or, as the official site ominously warned, “at least as much as you can try in two hours.” Naturally, I took that as a challenge: to lasso these strands of American culinary DNA and braid them into one ungodly, belly-busting chimera. I arrived at the large midtown event space on Fifth Avenue that hosted FoodFest with nothing short of a mouth-based road trip across the country in mind. It was Friday, April 20 — a preview night for members of the media and VIPs — and it occurred to me too late to do anything about it that the 4/20 timing may have been an implicit suggestion that I should have gotten stoned before this.
Hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn were standard ballpark fare for most of the twentieth century, but things started to get weird (in the very best, greasiest, and nacho cheesiest sense of the word weird) in the Nineties. Per The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine author Bennett Jacobstein, MLB’s food revolution was in part precipitated by the construction of twelve new stadiums with specially designed concessions spaces. 1970 American League MVP Boog Powell opened Boog’s BBQ with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, launching a ballpark barbecue trend. And following the MLB player strike in 1994 — game attendance dropped 20 percent the following year — exciting food was another tactic for clubs to lure back prodigal fans.
And MLB FoodFest, to be sure, was all about the excitement; the more Instagrammable the dish, the better. “On top of the eats, we’ll also be keeping your IG feed fed,” the FoodFest site promised. (Disclosure: In a previous lifetime, this reporter was employed as a blogger by Major League Baseball, with her primary beat being goofy mascot bloopers.) These aren’t your father’s Dodger Dogs. Instead, this was baseball’s answer to the Museum of Ice Cream, a social-media playground impeccably designed with irresistible photo opportunities and thoughtful, quirky details, like the unique custom paper printed with the team logo that each dish was served in. In the lobby beckoned a ball pit constructed to resemble a classic red-and-white-striped popcorn box. “Shoes off, pockets empty,” a staff member advised a young man, before instructing him to dive backward into the yellow plastic “kernels.” Upstairs, two chalkboards invited passersby to record their answers to the question: “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” (Last I saw, the tallies on the “no” side were winning by a factor of two.) This space was styled as the “Museum of Modern Dog,” where pop-art representations of the humble frankfurter included what appeared to be a gold Jeff Koons–inspired balloon weiner and an enormous hot dog seesaw.
Past that, in the main event hall, each team had its own designated booth serving a favorite dish from its stadium, in a portion roughly half the size of the real-life version. Several bars offered a wide selection of beers, as well as wine, bourbon, and prosecco garnished with bright-blue cotton candy that promptly dissolved, rendering the drink both a) a delightful shade of aquamarine and b) nauseating. In one corner, lined with artificial turf, a DJ in a classic Astros jersey spun Drake on a turntable below a neon sign reading “World Series Chomp-ions.” In another, a security guard stood watch beside the roped-off, largely ignored Commissioner’s Trophy.
It’s slightly surreal to experience anything in the near-exclusive company of people who are being paid to document it, but at an event like this one, engineered in a laboratory for optimal social-media results, maybe it wasn’t so far from the organic, civilian reality. There were cameras everywhere, both professional TV rigs and plucky iPhones, and I was surrounded by people who could earnestly give their job title as “influencer” recording their real-time culinary commentary. I watched one team of co-workers fan out and gather all thirty dishes like participants in the world’s easiest scavenger hunt, assembling them on one tabletop, only to allow the food to languish, untouched and unloved, for the rest of the evening. I would never.
Let’s begin, like evolution, in the sea. The New England Lobster Rolls (Boston Red Sox, duh) were served on hunks of bread that had been neither buttered nor grilled, which everyone knows is actually the best part of eating a lobster roll. (OK, maybe second best.) Nevertheless, it feels rude to look a gift lobster in the mouth. The San Francisco Giants’ Crazy Crab Sandwich was quite good, with a smear of garlic butter that leveled it up above the Nats’ Crab Grilled Cheese. The Chesapeake Waffle Fries (courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles, unsurprisingly) was served with a solid crab dip and a welcomely aggressive dusting of Old Bay, but the titular fries were mush.
Then there were the nachos. Were there ever nachos: The Seaside Market’s Tri-Tip Nachos (San Diego Padres), Jerk Chicken Nachos (Toronto Blue Jays), and the refreshingly dill-forward Chicken Shawarma Nachos (Detroit Tigers) — basically a salad with bad-boy nacho aspirations, if we’re being honest with ourselves. The best-tasting, if worst-named, was the Royals’ Brisket-Acho. At night’s end, meat plaque having fully encrusted my cerebrum, I scrawled in all caps in my notebook: “NACHOS ARE A WASTE OF TIME.” Having fully digested FoodFest, both emotionally and literally, I no longer stand by this sentiment, but you get the point. It was rough out there.
I was of course nosy to figure out exactly who the VIPs in attendance were, and early on, I saw a man carrying a gold championship belt from booth to booth. I gave up my covert Google investigation (“wrestling guy with reddish beard???”) once I realized up close that the belt was emblazoned with the word Nathan’s. It was Joey Chestnut, the competitive eater ranked first in the world (and who just won the 2018 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, for an eleventh time), just as I am a world-ranked idiot.
I give the Yankees’ Adobo Bao, stuffed with chicken and crumbled chicharrones, an A for concept, but the steamed white bun itself was on the dry side. The Angels’ Japanese-inspired Pork Katsu certainly stood out among the masses (not unlike the team’s rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old ex–Nippon Professional Baseball star who threw six perfect innings in his home debut this April), but the curry lacked flavor, and because I didn’t initially realize that plastic utensils were available, I attempted to eat the rice with my hands, which was less than ideal.
By this point, I’d done the math — with two hours to eat thirty plates, you’d need to be putting away one every four minutes to finish in time. At 7:37, I consulted my master list of dishes: I’d checked off ten of thirty. I was on pace, in terms of time, but it was already clear that belly volume would be at a premium. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pulled Pork Pierogi Hoagie was good, though I ended up scavenging just the top-notch pierogi tucked inside and chowing down on that. Served on a skewer like a corn dog, the Bacon-Wrapped Plantain (Miami Marlins) was delicious, largely thanks to a generous helping of guava marmalade. The Dodgers’ Cheeto-Lote (as in elote) was a true junk-food innovation, a corn cob smothered in chipotle mayo, cheese, and most importantly, a vivid dusting of crushed (brand-name!) Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that I had no doubt could be seen from space. It was both disgusting and a surprisingly effective balance of sweet corn, hyper-intense salt, and chemical spice. But again, disgusting, even though I would like to eat one now, if only so that my teeth can regain their distinctive, faint-orange Cheeto-Lote cast.
Behind me, I heard a woman ask, “Can I put you on my Instagram?” I turned around to see that she was speaking to Kardashian hanger-on Jonathan Cheban, who recently “collaborated” on 24K gold chicken wings with an East Village restaurant and boasts 2.7 million followers on his “Foodgōd” Instagram. (There he would post a photo of himself cavorting in the popcorn pit, tagged #sponsored.) Later, I was genuinely starstruck by the sight of Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, shirt tucked into his dad jeans, holding — what else? — nachos.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ingredients at FoodFest, as well as the obvious effort and care that went into the production of the full tasting menu. But some teams brought their imaginative A game more than others, giving life to Frankenfoods that any mad scientist would be proud to nosh on. The Houston Astros’ Chicken Waffle Cone, filled with honey mustard and mashed potatoes and topped with a handful of popcorn chicken — I ate it like a regular ice cream cone; I have no idea if I was supposed to eat it like a regular ice cream cone — was cute, and tasted better than it should have, even if it falls into the savory-sweet uncanny valley. I could not say the same for the Texas Rangers’ oozy-glazed Chicken and Donut Slider, which harbored an unaccountably, upsettingly tart layer of buffalo ranch sauce. But no dish got more attention, and rightly so, than the Mariners’ Toasted Grasshoppers: three bugs, dwarfed by an accompanying lime wedge. The grasshoppers were fried to a brown crisp but were otherwise perfectly intact, their limbs extended and their tiny black eyes staring into space, or maybe at Jonathan Cheban. The mouthfeel was pleasantly crunchy, but the chile heat was a little overpowering — is it strange to say I wish they tasted a little more insect-y?
After trying sixteen out of thirty dishes, I took a lap around the venue to give my increasingly beleaguered vital organs a break, and also, primarily, to hunt for more famous people. I did see a woman I think I might have gone to high school with, which I recognize is probably less interesting to you than Mariano Rivera, but was nevertheless jolting.
While some teams hit it out of the park (I’m so sorry), others made only a minimal effort, like a fifth-grader transparently ad-libbing through a book report on a novel that he did not bother to open, much less read. The Phillies’ Bull’s BBQ Slider (four-time All-Star Greg “The Bull” Luzinski now operates Bull’s BBQ at Citizens Bank Park) was a generic pulled pork slider with coleslaw. See also: The Rockies’ forgettable Helton Burger & Fries, named after longtime first baseman Todd Helton. If this were the NFL, you might say they were just here so they didn’t get fined.
That’s not to say that “basic” necessarily meant “bad.” The Mets’ NY Deli Pastrami Sandwich (exactly which New York deli, though, goes suspiciously unspecified), at least, had the benefit of being regionally appropriate, though I wish they’d opted for a meaner mustard. Cheddar Beer Bratwurst (Milwaukee Brewers) distinguished itself with sweet onion jam and a pretzel bun. The Cubs’ Chicago Dog was a fairly standard dog loaded with more pickles, peppers, and mustard than actual meat on a poppy seed bun — it was good, if not exactly life-changing. But the Nathan’s Famous All-Natural Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog (St. Louis Cardinals) proved to be a mouthful, in more ways than one. To me, this was the platonic ideal of a hot dog, with a drizzle of mayo, a hidden layer of baked beans, fried onion, diced tomato, and a thin slice of pickle. That said, since when does Missouri get first dibs on Brooklyn’s foremost purveyor of delicious meat tubes?
My favorite dishes fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between boring and truly unhinged. The Twins’ Kurd-Marczuk, named for Minneapolis deli Kramarczuk’s, was a visibly greasy pile of deep-fried cheese curds and sliced bratwurst soaking in brown gravy. I loved it, taking several more bites than is advisable, given how much more I had yet to eat. Easy to miss, buried alive as it was under a pile of uninteresting fries, the Monte Khrush Davis Cristo (Oakland A’s) was a teensy, delectable Monte Cristo served on mini Belgian waffles with strawberry preserves. We might see its namesake, slugger Khris “Krush” Davis, compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby; the Monte Cristo would surely clean up in the sandwich version thereof. The Tampa Bay Rays’ Reuben Cuban Sandwich was exactly what it sounds like, combining pulled pork, corned beef, kraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing into one multicultural dish. It was extremely good, and not just because its name rhymes. Under normal circumstances, I would have shoved at least one more of these sandwiches into my face, but that night, I had to move on.
I took on the Indians’ Flamethrower — pulled pork, bacon jam, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (yes, again) — around 8:30, and I enjoyed it (especially the bacon jam) far more than I should have this late in the game, considering I was about a hundred more stomach-churning calories away from hijacking the hot dog seesaw as my personal bilevel nap gurney. I was by then painfully aware that everywhere I looked, everyone was chewing, and I wished I knew how to make them stop. Pig Pickin’ (Atlanta Braves) was a taco bowl stuffed like yin and yang with the metaphysical duality that is macaroni & cheese and pulled pork. (If you’re playing along at home, five of thirty FoodFest dishes featured pulled pork. Pulled pork is the new Cracker Jack, although I don’t recommend looking for a prize hidden inside.) It also came with fried pork rinds, because of course it did. This dish would be intimidating under normal circumstances, but having done battle with more than two dozen of its brothers and sisters, I entered a BBQ sauce–flavored fugue state upon taking one bite and lost the next five minutes. I’d call this my seventh-inning stretch, but I would have preferred to seventh-inning lie down on the ground.
The White Sox’s South Side Horseshoe — an Italian sausage patty atop a round of garlic Texas toast, doused in cheese sauce (and a nod to the horseshoe, a messy open-faced sandwich of central Illinois tradition) — was quite tasty. That said, compared to the neatly sliced, evenly distributed scallions garnishing some of FoodFest’s surprisingly fussy ballpark dishes, this thing was downright goofy, with a lone waffle fry jammed into the thick yellow paste like an elementary school craft gone awry. Besides not being a particularly creative concept, the Cincinnati Reds’ Fry Box — which was…a box of fries, with bacon, cheese, gravy, and scallions — did not age well in the time it spent waiting for me on the counter, fat glistening in the bright lights. The gravy coagulated into an off-white solid beneath the exterior potato crust. I would not say I loved it. (Where is Skyline Chili when I need it the most?)
I saved the sole sweet entry for last (technically, I did see someone piping soft-serve ice cream directly into mini baseball helmets, but as that particular dessert is unaffiliated with any specific team, I granted my stomach a well-deserved and very necessary exemption). The D-Backs’ Churro Dog was made to order: a (room-temperature, sadly) churro nestled inside a donut and slated with Froyo, chocolate sauce, caramel, and whipped cream. It was a mess, as was I. But I was just happy to finally be eating something cold and sweet, without the slightest suggestion of pulled pork or nachos.
I finished my quest just a minute or two before 9 p.m. and headed home, leaving behind a woman in a “Highway 420” shirt, who probably has a million YouTube subscribers, singing a list of foods she ate to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into a camera.
A few weeks ago, I watched the Yankees beat the Rays at home in the Bronx. Even after my #FoodFest #foodgod journey through the vanguard of ballpark food innovation, I couldn’t resist ordering my long-standing favorite: regular old sausage and peppers. Deeply generic, yes, but also deeply delicious.