Minor League ballpark food has taken a turn in the last few years that would make Mike Veeck blush. It’s almost beyond parody now (sorry, Grant). What started with a humble cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme donut for a bun, now openly indulges in the purely vulgar. It has even begun to wheedle its way into big-league parks as well. How did they get even the most hungover, nicotine-withdrawn Chef to sign off on Monster-Energy-infused barbecue sauce?
Now the gray-haired purists among you, the type who sign their letters to the editor with “P.S. I am not a crackpot,” will say that in the good old days of Shea and Veterans and Memorial and Candlestick and the first Comiskey, you only needed to smuggle in a ham and cheese sandwich and maybe a thermos of Yoo-hoo to get you through the game. But until the pace of play initiative makes a bigger dent in game times, we shouldn’t begrudge fans wanting a few nice meal options for the three-plus hours they are out.
And teams have responded for the most part by expanding their selections past the usual burger, dog, and Dippin’ Dots. Big foodie names seek out stadium stalls. You can still find a Nathan’s in your favorite New York stadium, but you can also find offerings from David Chang and Pat LaFreida in Queens, Major Food Group and Lobel’s in the Bronx. In Phily, Andrew Zimmern has curated a Korean Fried Pork Belly Sandwich, and of course there is Tony Luke’s and Federal Donuts. Life has never been better for the discerning diner who also wants to take in a baseball game.
So how did I end up eating two pieces of pork roll, fried in funnel cake batter, dusted in powdered sugar, and plated with a side of neon yellow nacho cheeze this weekend?
Let me first tell you there is a unique guilt that comes into play when you saddle up to the funnel cake stand and order “The Jersey Special.”
I am well equipped to deal with a bit of shame along with my food. On my honeymoon my wife and I splurged for one of the great meals of my life, a belt-busting seven-course tasting menu with wine parings at a restaurant that frequently appears on Best of Canada lists. But it ended up costing close to a rent payment after tax and tip.
The best dish from that same meal also contained foie gras. We can debate whether the few remaining purveyors of such in the U.S. are more or less cruel than the hectares of factory farms that comprise large swaths of the heartland, but there is a specific guilt that hits you both when the plate of fatty, unctuous goose liver is placed in front of you, and then again when it is hauled away, empty except for a few stray crumbs of sesame tuile.
I’ve eaten (and enjoyed) fish that is being unsustainably harvested, Chilean sea bass and blue fin tuna come to mind. Some of the best yellowtail sashimi to hit my tastebuds was in Reno of all places, and it was likely hustled from its point of origin with little concern for the resulting carbon footprint. I’ve eaten really good barbecue in very small shacks with extremely questionable taste in décor. I’ve (god knows) drunk too much on occasion.
Then there is the kind of guilt that hits you when you end up eating two pieces of pork roll, fried in funnel cake batter, dusted in powdered sugar, and plated with a side of neon yellow nacho cheeze.
I find minor-league press box food a loving, but utilitarian gesture. Avoid the 10 a.m. clam strips and fried shrimp on camp day, maybe, but it is an even longer day at the park for me than it is for our hypothetical fans above, so it is usually worth partaking. I do like to try the stadium food every once in a while though, if only to see what is on offer at various places. First Energy Field has been a reliably great food stadium year-in and year-out for me. I usually hit the Surf Taco just past the right field foul pole before games. There is a nice view, and it is plus-plus ballpark food.
But the Surf Taco is now gone, replaced by a “Tuscan Grill” that featured such items as a soup and salad combo (salad was a seasonal shrimp and avocado, soup was chili), fried feta sliders with mixed greens and a fruity balsamic vinaigrette and scarpariello-flavored chicken wings. Look, my last name implies that I might enjoy a nice chicken scarpariello, but I can't help but see this as reflective of the greater gentrification affecting Lakewood.
So anyway, I was looking to sample something new, and Twitter has clued me in to the existence of this deep-fried pork product, and the rosters were looking a bit thin, with both Isael Soto and Deivi Grullon hitting the DL shortly before I got into town. The fried pork roll seemed like another easy lead. A foodstuff ripe for a little Pete-Wells-on-Señor-Frog's homage.
So I sauntered up to the Funnel Cake stand on Saturday around the fifth inning. There's no suave way to order a Funnel-Cake-Fried Pork Roll from the teenager in the red Tommy Bahama shirt sotted with blue crabs, but you can do it confidently.
Then you wait.
It doesn't take long for the disks of not-legally ham to float to the top of the deep fryer. They ask you if you want nacho cheeze or chocolate sauce on the side. The picture implies you get both, but okay. I elected for the cheeze. Then I dive in while it is still warm, a BP colleague gleefully capturing the whole thing with his iPhone.
Oh my god it's really good. You're expecting a textural disaster, some sort of vaguely salt and pork flavored mush. But the batter remains crispy and the pork product is…porky. The combination of powdered sugar and nacho cheeze just works. The savory-sweet dish is almost a cliché at this point, but I couldn't stop eating it. I could eat this every day. Lipitor has no long-term side effects, right?
I showed up Sunday before first pitch to try it with the chocolate sauce. I'd have to check with Russell to find out the stabilization point on fried pork roll, but I was really hungry on Saturday and that can color your viewing. I saddled up again to the stand, only to find out that they were out of pork roll. Really? You couldn't go to Costco and pick up some more? This is not an artisanal product. You can't even legally call it ham.
All right, I will eat the fried feta sliders. Oh, this is going to burn my mouth, isn't it?
There was stuff happening on the field too
- I wrote about Josh Naylor in this week’s Ten Pack…Cornelius Randolph is the biggest prospect name, but he underwhelmed in this look. He has very quick wrists and generates easy plus bat speed, but he struggles to keep his hands in, and you can beat him inside even with below-average velocity. The swing still looks good in BP, but it has a very flat plane, and it is geared more for line drives than launch angle. When he does try to play for power, he tends to collapse and get under the ball. He didn’t get much work in the field, but he runs well, and is more athletic than you’d think. I still remain confident in him over the long haul, but it may be a slow and winding development path.
- Emmanuel Marrero has never hit as a pro, and is a 23-year-old repeating the South Atlantic League, but he can handle either spot on the left side of the diamond, and he put together some nice at-bats across the weekend. It’s likely a role 3 type in the end, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up with a couple major-league lines on his baseball-reference page…Grenny Cumana is a small, spark plug type shortstop that reminds me a bit of Wilfredo Tovar, but he has a second baseman’s arm which puts a damper on the profile…his counterpart on Greensboro, Anfrenee Seymour has a bit more to recommend. He’s a recent convert to shortstop, and it shows at times, but he is a 65 runner with strong, aggressive instincts on the bases. His overall offensive game is rawer than Cumana’s though, and he has similar arm strength issues. Given the profile, I do wonder why they didn’t just keep him in the outfield.
- On the mound, Shane Watson looks healthy again and sat 91-93 in his outing. The fastball has some late life to it too. The curveball is inconsistent and slurvy, but you can see the makings of a tighter slider at times. It’s a 30 pitch at present, but that is more than enough to overwhelm A-ball bats when you can command it okay. He threw two changeups all night on my sheet, and that coupled with a low three-quarters slot and a long arm action may give him platoon issues down the line. My colleague Jarret Seidler liked his chances to be a middle reliever more than I did, but he has a chance. For now he needs innings more than anything else.
- Luke Leftwich, the Phillies seventh-round pick out of Wofford College, touched 94 in the first, but bled velocity quickly and was 89-91 by the third. Like Watson I suppose he has a chance as a pen arm, but his rolling curve is not nearly as advanced as Watson’s…Alberto Tirado was an easy 94-97 out of the pen. He didn’t throw anything else and didn’t need anything else. Jarrett caught him again on Monday and three pitches went to the backstop. It’s a work in progress, but he’s still only 21…Harold Arauz showed a little less fastball than I was expecting, sitting 88-90 early, 86-88 late. He struggled with his fastball command all afternoon and was much more comfortable spotting his upper-70s curve for strikes. Arauz can do a few different things with it, spot it to both sides, play with the shape. I wonder if they can wring a little more velocity out of his frame in the pen. It’s an up-tempo delivery, but there isn’t much effort there at present, and the right-hander still has room to develop.
- Justin Jacome benefited from being the Saturday Night starter behind Dillon Tate at UC Santa Barbara. Scouts that stuck around on the weekend for the best uni on the west coast, saw a 6-foot-6 lefty that reportedly touched 93. So it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise when he got popped for fifth-round slot. The fastball is only 85-89 now though, and neither secondary projects as even average. Andy Beltre came in for the ninth on Sunday and a scout nearby told me to not bother grabbing the gun or opening a notebook. Then he hit 95 on the stadium gun. That was new apparently. He hit 97 on both our guns during the outing, but it’s 20 command, and those types of arms guys were much more noteworthy five years ago. It feels like every A-ball bullpen has one now. Beltre has only thrown 17 innings in the previous three seasons. There is a Tommy John surgery in there and who knows what else.
 Hot Ovaltine for the April night games.
 This was advertised at the Funnel Cake stand as “Fried Pork Roll” as well. To be a proper Jersey Special you’d think they would call it “Fried Taylor Ham.” But maybe they are just wary of The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Under that, the product does not meet the legal definition of ham.
 Under the Food Blogging Standards and Berlin-Icthyosaur State Park Preservation Act of 2006, I am required to use unctuous as an adjective when describing foie gras.
 Okay, now we have stretched this lead so thin that it is translucent, but the eponymous Surf Taco was a great ballpark bite. I do miss it.
 This was deliberate strategy. You can't risk losing the whole weekend to fried pork, and you don't want it right before the threehour drive home on Sunday afternoon
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