Imagine feeding a visitor from a foreign country mostly uninfluenced by American culture — obviously not an easy hypothetical — maybe Mongolia or Mozambique or Paraguay, someone with few preconceptions of what Americans eat.
He wants to go out and eat American food. It doesn’t have to be fancy and in fact should not be; it doesn’t even have to be very good, but he wants to eat as an everyday American would. He is not looking for one particular, all-defining dish, and would like to try several things.
Where you happen to live might determine what first occurs to you, as American food is the food of many regions, fajitas in Texas, fish and chips in Massachusetts, pizza in Chicago, apple pie in Vermont, maybe a bowl of saimin in Hawaii, or a California roll in Los Angeles.
You could make a pretty good case, wherever you are, for the Cheesecake Factory, one of the highest-grossing restaurant chains in the country, whose vast menu covers all the American standards, including many dishes we might have once considered ethnic but are now staples of American tables, tempura, burritos, cashew chicken, fettucine.
The Cheesecake Factory is to restaurants what Las Vegas is to cities, big and showy, a spectacle of food. The execution might be ordinary, but its scale and presentation are not. Plus, the entrees are huge, and what says "America" more than big and plenty?
But if your hypothetical exchange student from the Mongolian steppe happens to arrive in Seattle in July, consider taking him instead to dine al fresco in Safeco Field, which on game days could qualify as the city’s biggest restaurant. Apart from the food, he will also experience baseball, the oldest of our major sports, and the one that perhaps appeals most to our better selves.
It requires patience and its rewards are sometimes intangible. A season is made up of more games than any sport, and each game, in theory, can last forever. While physically finite, the playing field has no official boundary with the outfield stretching as far as a ball can travel. The difference between a pennant season and a losing one can be the result of a few lucky bounces or a few bad pitches.
Like the country it was born in, the face of baseball is becoming more complex. On Opening Day, 234 players (28 percent) on Major League rosters were born outside the United States. They came from 14 countries and territories, most in Latin America. The Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, and Mets tend to have the most foreign-born players as do the cities the teams are from. (In 2009, the Seattle Mariners had the most foreign-born players in the league with 15, although none from Mongolia, Mozambique, or Paraguay.)
Dinner at the ballpark is a relatively civilized affair in Seattle, a city of worldly aspirations and, probably, the insecurities that go with them. Sure, Safeco Field serves peanuts, caramel corn, and hot dogs, but, like the city it is in, it can do so much more, the stadium seems to be saying. One of Seattle’s top chefs, the ubiquitous Ethan Stowell, has lent his name to two food stands in the stadium, Hamburg + Frites and La Creperie. His are among the high-concept concessions at the stadium, as are two outlets that serve tortas and pizza.
The intentionally high-end concessions are grouped together behind the bullpen in an area called "The ‘Pen," where there is also a full bar. Here you can get your drink and your flirt on, and still catch some baseball.
Accessible only to spectators in the Terrace Club suites is a seafood stand called Sound Seafood, which serves corn and crab chowder (made with chunks of real crab), blackened salmon sandwiches, shrimp cocktail, and halibut and chips, items that touch on food traditions of New England, the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific Northwest.
The majority of food stands are located in the main concourse and include cheese steak sandwiches, sushi, Thai food, and even a place for vegans called "The Natural," mixing metaphors of baseball legends and hippie cookbooks.
Everything seems to cost a little less than $10, and you can easily spend $30, $40, or $50 just on food and drinks, making it comparable to eating out in a restaurant. The stadium food is not of restaurant quality though. A lot of it has been sitting around for a while. Flavors lean toward bland. It helps to be hungry, and to remember you are eating dinner at a Major League Baseball game in Safeco Field, where, as concession food goes, the variety is commendable.
Walk around the stadium from center field to home plate with your hypothetical visitor and, with a sweep of your arm, tell him, “This is American food.”
As an appetizer, start with the deep fried chicken strips and garlic fries ($9.75). Explain that chicken strips, or chicken tenders, or chicken fingers, are not actually the digits of chickens, but strips of breast meat commonly fed to American children, and the staple of kids’ menus all over.
When he asks “what are kids’ menus?” you can have an interesting discussion about the segregation of American dining tables into what the grown-ups eat and what the kids eat and the value of coddling children on macaroni and cheese and French fries, instead of requiring them to eat what you’re eating. Your guest will find the chicken tasteless, but its texture appealing; he will find the garlic fries pure genius and something every human can love, unlike baseball, which is an acquired taste.
It is primarily a game of the Americas, North, Central, and South, but increasingly one of Asia with many players from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. To cover that base, so to speak, Safeco Field has Rice and Roll, a counter that serves packaged sushi, the likes of which can be found in grocery stores and shopping malls across the country. Its quality is also on par with those aforementioned grocery stores and malls. Sushi made it in America before Ichiro Suzuki did.
The most recent and most successful foreign food to have swept America might be Thai food. That you can now eat it at a Major League Baseball game says something. Thai food is the new Chinese food, and in many towns, it is the default Asian cuisine, often paired with Japanese dishes in restaurants to fill seats Japanese food alone cannot do. Thai is just exotic enough, just familiar enough, adaptable enough, and the reason that it is no longer strange to see a wok at a ballpark.
Of the many places in the stadium to buy pizza, the most interesting is Apizza, its name, concept, and menu borrowed from Modern Apizza, the locally famous restaurant in New Haven, Conn., owned by Bill Pustari. Apizza serves square slices of New Haven-style pizza, whose distinctions are subtle and similar to the characteristics of New York style pizza.
New Haven pizza, a somewhat obscure breed outside Connecticut, has a very thin crust, an oblong shape, and is not covered with mozzarella cheese the way most pizzas are. The Safeco-Apizza slice ($5) is taken from a pie probably baked at least several minutes before you ordered it, and is atypical of the classic American pizza smothered in cheese, stacked with toppings, and laid atop a thick bed of dough.
Most of the foreign-born players in the Majors come from three countries, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, the Caribbean being a hotbed of baseball. None of the food of these countries has been transformed into ballpark fare the way Mexican food has. (Mexico also regularly produces big league ballplayers, although not in the number of its other Latin neighbors.)
Safeco has plenty of Mexican-inspired, concession-stand standards like nachos, but behind the bullpen a stand called Tortugas Voladoras serves tortas ($8.50), those Mexican sandwiches that are catching on with the taco and burrito crowd. Tortugas Voladoras is also branded with the stamp of a big-name chef, Roberto Santibanez, who made a name for himself in Austin, Texas, and New York, where he runs high-end Mexican restaurants (Fonda San Miguel in Austin, and Fonda in Brooklyn).
His ballpark tortas are made to order with slices of avocado, red onions, jalapenos, a generous smear of refried beans, and your choice of braised pork, roasted chicken, or stewed beef. The pork torta was filling, a nice departure from a concession burger, but also suffered from that dulling effect of having sat around for a while.
Eating a hot dog, of course, is a requirement of going to a baseball game and, I’m pretty sure, of American citizenship. Hot dog stands are located everywhere in the stadium and even outside it. You can eat 15 hot dogs before you even get to your seat.
Ethan Stowell’s “Pen Dog” at Hamburg + Frites is $4.50, about the same price as all the other dogs in a two-mile radius of the stadium. I’ve interviewed Stowell before, known for his inventive take on rustic Italian cooking, and admire not just his facility with food, but his perspective on eating. The Pen Dog is a nicely grilled hot dog with little more to it than that, but perhaps that is all a hot dog needs to be, something that Stowell probably understands.