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True Confessions Of A Ballpark Food Vendor

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May 11, 2015

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Baseball season is underway, and if someone takes you out to the ball game, you'll probably ask them to buy you some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

This week on The Sporkful, we explore the intricacies of the two foods immortalized in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".

But first, one crucial distinction: It’s Cracker Jack, NOT Cracker JackS (unless you have multiple boxes). So if you dig into the bag and pull out a handful, you would say, "I have some pieces of Cracker Jack." Not "I have some Cracker Jacks."

PeanutsCrackerJack_MudflapDC

Let's begin with the song itself. The guy who wrote it in 1908 had never even been to a ball game. But that reference to Cracker Jack translated to free advertising the likes of which America has not seen before or since.

In a classic On The Media story from 2002, my friend Mike Pesca, host of Slate's daily podcast The Gist, looks at the history of the song and tries to put a dollar value on the free advertising that the song has given to Cracker Jack over the decades.

"Conservatively, the price to replace the lyric with outdoor advertising in professional baseball stadiums would be $25 million," Mike reports.

But you know what they say about "free lunches." Mike learns that this free advertising may have come at a cost.

"They may have had some difficulties trying to make Cracker Jack contemporary," writer Paul Lukas tells Mike in the piece. "I do think it has to do with the song. In some ways it's great free advertising but it may be a bit of a straight-jacket."

CrackerJack_Michael Verhoef

We also get some serious peanut-eating advice from Nile Brisson, a third-generation peanut man and president of Peanut Processors, Inc. in North Carolina.

Nile tells us the best way to eat peanuts in the shell and explains how they get the salt inside without breaking the shells. (It may seem like magic, but it's not.)

I like to eat the whole peanut, shells and all. Nile assures me that's just fine -- for Yankees, like me.

“There’s no adverse effects to eating a peanut shell, which is pretty much all fiber,” Nile says. “I know a lot of people, particularly in the northern part of the country, do eat the peanut, shell and all. I do not.”

peanuts-hands

Later in the show, I talk to Ted Berg, a sports writer for USA TODAY and a food lover. In addition to spending countless hours thinking about sports, he also used to be a food vendor at the old Shea Stadium, former home of the New York Mets.

And he has some stories to tell -- like that time an unhappy customer spat a hot dog at him.

“I said ‘Sir, hot dogs are, by nature, pre-cooked,’ and he lost it," Ted says. "He ultimately got kicked out of the game -- which made me mad with power for at least a day.”

SellingPeanuts_MudflapDC

Ted also reveals the best assignment a ballgame food vendor can get: selling beer in the mezzanine on a crowded day. But Ted didn't have enough seniority to get such plum assignments.

“I liked getting soda. It sold pretty well," Ted says. "Some people complained about the weight, but I was 19 so I thought it was pretty easy to haul the soda around.”

Listen in to the full episode for the lowdown on the worst vendor gigs in the ballpark. Here's a hint from Ted:

“You certainly don’t want to be in the upper deck because then you’re climbing a lot of stairs for not a lot of sales.”

Here's the view from the assignment Ted's referring to:

MetsStadium_AdamKuban

And Ted and I debate some vital Cracker Jack issues: ideal popcorn-to-peanut ratio, clustering, and, of course, which prize is the best.

“No matter how many peanuts are in here, there are not enough peanuts in here," Ted says. "It’s all popcorn.”

I argue that Cracker Jack used to have more peanuts, but Ted has a more philosophical point of view.

“You may be right, but I also would be concerned that that’s maybe a little bit of us getting older and the world getting a little sadder," he says. "We notice fewer peanuts.”

Turns out, Ted may be right.

We reached out to Frito Lay, who bought Cracker Jack in 1997. They couldn’t comment on changes to the recipe before then, but they did say that there has been no reduction in the peanut-to-popcorn ratio since they took over. In fact, they say they added more peanuts a few years ago.

Maybe we are just getting a little older and sadder.

PS - Yes, there are other classic ballpark foods: hot dogs, nachos, and beer -- to name a few. We do love them, but in this episode, we're focusing on the iconic song and its food. Satisfy your other ballpark food cravings with our Hot Dogs and Hot Dougs episode and my Nacho Etiquette video.

This week's episode of The Sporkful podcast is up! Listen through the player or iTunes/Podcasts app. (And please subscribe!)

Connect with me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook!

Interstitial music in this episode by BWN Music:

- "Mother Tucker" by Steve Pierson

- "Quirk Store" by Nicholas Rod

Photos: Flickr/CC: MudflapDCFlickr/CC: Adam Kuban, Flickr/CC: UGA College of Ag & Environmental Sciences, Flickr/CC: Peter Miller, Flickr/CC: Dennis Miyashiro, Flickr/CC: hermanturnip

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