Food & Drink

Q&A with Bennett Jacobstein

We talk to the author of The Joy of Ballpark Food about the grub at Camden Yards.

When Bennett Jacobstein retired from his job as a longtime librarian at Hayward Public Library in Hayward, CA, in 2007, he decided to pursue a whole new ball game, taking a job at the concession stand at Municipal Stadium, home of Minor League Baseball’s Class-A Advanced San Jose Giants. Though he had retired early, Jacobstein went back to the books in no time at all, after deciding to write his own book, The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine, about the food stands at Major-League parks.

“I saw an article on how the hot dog first came to baseball and it got me interested in food history,” he says. “When I looked into it, there was no comprehensive history of what’s being served now, so I decided to write one.” We caught up with Jacobstein to talk about the grub at Camden Yards, shilling peanuts, and Charlie Brown.

What’s the history of concessions at sporting events?
Harry Stevens was the pioneer vendor, he was known as the Babe Ruth of the concession stand. He tried selling peanuts at racetracks [circa the late 1800s], but people needed their hands free for betting. With baseball, peanuts were popular at games because people needed something to do with their hands.

Why do baseball and food go so well together?
In the introduction to my book, I have a Peanuts cartoon that shows Linus and Charlie Brown eating a hot dog on their front steps. In it, Charlie Brown says, “A hot dog doesn’t taste right without a ball game in front of it.” When you think of football and basketball, food doesn’t pop into your mind, but the slow pace of baseball makes it more of an experience. There’s a lot of emphasis on the food in major-league baseball and on trying to get families to come to a game. Not everyone is necessarily an ardent fan—some people just come for the food. If opera had good food, that would be me—my wife is the opera fan.

What was your process in writing this book?
At first, I thought I could just research all of the parks by using the Internet and trying to get information from the food vendors about their current offerings, but I soon discovered that I couldn’t get the detailed information I needed without visiting all the parks. I went to Camden Yards on July 3, 2014. The Orioles beat the Texas Rangers 5-2.

So what did you think of the food at Camden Yards?
This wasn’t meant to be a ratings guide and more a celebration of diversity and variety of foods, but I definitely have a list of what I consider the top eight, and Camden yards is one of them. They have the local emphasis with places like Stuggy’s and Polock Johnny’s and also do a good job of having regional fare such as Maryland crab soup and soft-shell crabs.

What did you eat while at Camden Yards?
My process with each place is that my wife, who was the photographer, and I would get there when the gates opened an hour and a half or two hours before the games. We would go to every stand and document what they had, including one signature hot dog and other things that were regional and had some uniqueness. At Camden Yards, we had The Birdland Hot Dog with smoked brisket, pepperoni hash, tomato jam, and frizzled onions on top of the hot dog. I tried the soft-shell sandwich at the Old Bay seafood stand, the Boog’s Pit Beef, and Tako Korean koji chicken tacos.

And your take on what you consumed?
I’m more of a purist when it comes to hot dogs. It had so much stuff on it, it took away from the hot dog rather than accented it. I liked the soft-shell crab, although when you’re eating, you keep wondering, “Am I supposed to be eating the shell?” It was different, but good.

When you’re working at the concession stand, do you tell the fans about the book?
I try to keep a low profile, but I do make jokes. A lot of times people are upset because of the high prices. I like saying, “Five dollars for a bag of peanuts, yes, but each one comes individually wrapped in their own shells.”

Read more about the food at Camden Yards in our May issue, on newsstands now.