Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gluten-Free Baseball


My darling husband did some GF recon work for me at U.S. Cellular Field a couple of weeks ago, and he agreed to guest blog (my first guest blogger!) about the noms he found. Take it away, Luke!

When I was originally asked by my beautiful and talented wife to write a guest blog about baseball, I began gathering stats and career numbers of White Sox players ranging back to Shoeless Joe Jackson. If I were going to do a blog, I figured I would do it right. 

Then she corrected me. “About the food, you idiot. The food.” It then struck me, as it always does when I take Alissa to U.S. Cellular Field to see the White Sox play diamond bags, she does not now, nor ever has cared for the game. In fact, I recall her saying on 5 of 6 occasions that the only reason to watch baseball were “Men in tight pants and nachos."  I would typically take offense, but realize now that baseball draws all kinds and as long as she is coming to the game and humoring me while I yell at umpires, say “batter, batter, batter” endless times and insist that she be astounded by the 12-6 curveball that Chris Sale just threw, I am happy.

The Food:
I should preface this by saying that U.S. Cellular Field is by far the most celiac-friendly professional sporting venue in the country, so these results are not typical unless you live on the south side of Chicago. In fact, roughly half of the 30+ stadiums I researched, have no discernible gluten-free menu listed on any Web site.  To give you some scope: before we knew about the Celiac Monster growing inside Alissa (I like to envision him with arms of wheat and eyes as black as the night), we went to the world’s most known baseball stadium, Wrigley Field (about 8 miles north of U.S. Cellular) for a Billy Joel/Elton John concert . While, at the time, we were not looking for gluten-free food (and, in fact, ate a giant slice of pizza before we came to the stadium), we were saddened by the selection. Three (3) beers (Bud, Bud Light and Old Style) were the only ones available throughout most of the park and the concession selection was limited to hot dogs, pretzels and a few other baseball basics. Neither Alissa nor I were particularly impressed (the concert, however, was very impressive).  Back 8 miles south at “The Cell”, as it is known in the baseball world, the smell of the parking lot alone is unfair to a celiac. Sausage, burgers, hot dogs, steaks, chicken and other meats when cooked together, create a smell that I can safely assume angel farts smell like. Most of you gluten free people can eat many of these snacks, yes, but they are all nestled in a tight-fitting bun on game day. Sad gluten-free pandas. 
You then go off shuffle up a series of escalators to get to the cheap seats. As soon as you reach the top of said escalator, you realize why I consider it the “Electric Stairway to Heaven”. You are immediately blasted in the face with the aroma of grilled onions. Don’t fight it, just sit back and let it happen. Your clothes will carry this smell with you until the next day (if you don’t care for grilled onions, my guess is that you also do not care for America and you should probably look up a blog on the gluten-free concession offerings at stadiums in North Korea). Before you can reach your seats, you are in food paradise. Hot dogs, Polish sausage, nachos, ice cream, beer; you expect these things at a baseball game. But pulled pork nachos with fresh salsa? Five-hour oven-roasted turkey? Corned beef on fresh, local bakery bread? Welcome to baseball in Chicago. 

Beer
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What is the first thing any good sports fan goes for? Booze. In our case, my entire party drank Crispin Hard Cider for the whole game. It was actually cheaper per ounce than Miller Lite and contained 10-15% more alcohol. Additionally, it has a crisp, clean flavor that makes it the perfect thing for a hot summer night.  Oh, one more thing: 100% gluten free and served in CANS! No cross contamination from an oft-used tap here. They sell it in three major spots in the park, but it is available to all sections who want it. We sat just three sections from this bar, so we had quite a few. They also have two locally brewed gluten-free beers, as well as Bard’s Tale GF. If you have celiac and prefer be trashed to watch sports, go to Section 525 at U.S. Cellular Field. I suggest not driving if this is the case. Perchance a DD or a trusty horse can get you home.

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Inning one came and went and then, as is tradition, it was time for sausage. You cannot escape the Cell without a Polish sausage. If you try, someone will likely throw a trident at you. I asked the regular concession lady if they had gluten-free buns. She said they did not have them there, but all of the free-standing hot dog and sausage grills were stocked with gluten-free buns. I asked a nice young man at the flat top set up right outside our section if the hot dogs and Polish were GF, he said “Yes, it is guaranteed by our distributor.” I asked for GF buns and he changed his gloves, got new tongs and opened a GF hot dog bun out of a sealed plastic pouch. He opened them and placed them, open side down, atop the mountain of grilled onions before him. “This works to loosen up the gluten free buns. They are a little rigid unless they steam.” (Clarification: Luke said the guy doesn't do that with regular buns, so no cross-contamination issue.) He then gave me a Polish and piled high with the onions. I went back to my seat SHOCKED at how easy that was. No eye rolls, no huffy language. The dude was knowledgeable, engaged and more than happy to work with me (he got tipped 2 greenbacks, in case you wanted to know). I chewed into it and it was delightful. The sausage casing snapped and popped, the onions added a well-received sweetness and the bun was…well, it was a bun. Admittedly, the damn thing fell apart on me after three bites, but who is going to complain?  I pieced it together and knocked down the rest of my Polish. Note: If you are concerned about ketchup getting all over your hands from your dog, realize this is Chicago and you should not be putting ketchup on a sausage of any kind.

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I know what you are thinking here: “Corn? Who goes to a baseball game to eat corn?” Well, for those of you who know little to nothing about the south side of Chicago, it has one of the largest  Hispanic populations in the United States. In fact, for roughly 50 square miles around the park, you can find at least one Hispanic grocery store or deli about every 4 blocks. Corn, as many of you also may not know, is a mainstay in Mexican cuisine. At the Cell, it is called “elotes.” Interestingly enough, the elotes stands in the park (there are four of them) are all located near a Tex-Mex style grill and a churro stand (sorry, celiacs, churros are your equivalent to a pipe bomb and I would avoid at all costs). Where were we? OH RIGHT!  CORN! So, for like $4, a cook will reach into a giant pot of boiling water, pull out a large corn on the cob and then whack it clean with a few swipes of an unnecessarily large knife. The corn is then placed into a standard cardboard tray and treated to your liking. Options include salt, butter, parmesan, chili powder, hot sauce and several others that slip my mind at the moment. The butter, parmesan and salt are the only things a gluten free diet will allow here, but I only ever get butter and salt anyway.  They drown your corn, and then it is like soup by the time you get back to your seat. It has soup beat, though, because, instead of broth it is pure melted butter. I suggest drinking the leftovers like a little kid knocking down the leftover milk after a bowl of Lucky Charms or Gorilla Munch.




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Alissa’s personal favorite. In fact, having taken Alissa to White Sox games, Blackhawks games, Chicago Rush football games and both Illinois State and Bradley University basketball games, she always gets nachos and always comments about how it is her only reason for being there. Alissa does not care for sport. (Editor's note: TRUTH.) Interesting fact: Mission is the official nacho of Major League Baseball.  Mission chips and cheese sauce are both confirmed gluten-free! So anytime you walk by any nacho vender at any major league stadium, you gluten-free folk can rest assured that not only can you eat them, but there is virtually no chance of cross-contamination as most Mission stands have nothing near them but corn chips, cheese sauce and jalapenos. Nachos are nachos, but at the Cell they go one step further.  They have advertised on their website that at certain locations in the stadium, a person can order nachos made fresh with fresh melted cheese, pulled pork, chicken, beef or even steak.  If ordered GF, they can make that entire meal, and, having seen them in action, they are a meal and half. This alone will fill you for the whole game and is only like 8-10 bucks. You’ll notice that, by this point in the game, I had ingested quite a bit and didn’t want to have a food baby in the 7th inning, so I got standard nachos. Still, as quality as ever.


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U.S. Cellular proudly boasts one of the most extensive dessert menus in the bigs. Eli’s Cheesecake factory being located in Chicago helps a bunch. There is soft-serve anywhere in the stadium and you can order them in cones, waffle cones, standards cups, mini helmets or, my favorite, a standard size batting helmet. I suggest the gluten-free crowd avoid the cones. The ice cream, though, is advertised as GF.  So, I got the mini helmet and this is by far the best deal at the cell.  Four bucks?!  Dude, this is like a standard-size Dairy Queen sundae and I’m eating it at a ball game for four bucks?  Yes. Of course, add a dollar for the helmet (because who wouldn’t get the helmet for a dollar?). Delicious, and because they stop serving beer after the top of the 7th, this is a nice treat to end the night.  I usually buy this during the top of the 7th when everyone in the stadium is standing in line at beer stands and just ignoring everything else. 
Note: The cell recently added a few other GF desserts to the menu including a salted caramel cheesecake.  I looked for this for an inning and a half and could not find a vender that had not sold out of it.  It is my white whale, but I swear I will find it!  Call me Cheesecake Ishmael.

Summary:
I know one of the hardest thing to do on a GF diet is feel comfortable attending events like baseball games or theatrical performances and knowing that you are going to be hungry.  It certainly looks like major sporting events are changing the way they look at food and U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago is certainly heading that charge. Feel comfortable coming to the Cell if ever in Chicago.  Enjoy your food with confidence and don’t forget to “root, root for the White Sox”.  

Thanks to Luke, and to our friends Dave and Jason, for being such good, umm, sports about a gluten-free night at the ball game. And as a disclaimer, make sure you feel comfortable with the prep and ingredients if you are celiac!
       

3 comments:

  1. TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, Home of the College World Series, has a stand alone food cart in between home and 3rd base that is entirely g-free. I remember hotdogs, nachos, ice cream and some sort of chips. So, if Bradley ever makes it to the CWS, God help us, Alissa will be able to pig out on baseball food like everyone else. (I'm ignoring the comments about Wrigley.)

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  2. Hi Alissa, my name is Lisa Feldman and I work for The Eli's Cheesecake Company. Could you please email me at lfeldman@elicheesecake.com? Thank you.

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  3. So good post, good tips, they are useful to me.

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