On the Side: Peanuts! Hot dogs! Crabless cakes!

Posted: March 27, 2008

On a big, blustery, blue-sky day last Thursday - 11 full days before the Phillies' season opener - Aramark, Citizens Bank Park's exclusive concessionaire, was putting on quite a spread.

You didn't have to engage your peripheral vision to take in rosy medallions of beef tenderloin, skillets of "true" (though hardly jumbo-lump) Maryland crab cakes, smoked brisket sandwiches primly quartered for sampling, and a new Planet Hoagie offering - hoagies sans their carby rolls.

Fans can now order any hoagie, basically, as a salad. Italian hoagie? Italian salad!

That was just the beginning of the culinary inspirations Aramark was rolling out. I was thinking I might spend the season contentedly grazing, looking up at the action only when cued by a particularly lusty roar of the crowd.

Then I remembered. This wasn't the stuff - or most of it wasn't - that you get in the cheap-seats sections. (In the "Premium Suites," executive chef Glenn Richmond was promising organic chicken and local Jersey corn. Oops, I haven't been invited.)

The preview buffet was laid out before the TV cameras and the assembled media at the posh Diamond Club Patio, the particular seats that descend therefrom about as good it gets; and at $6,175 the season (plus food), double your average non-club seats.

They fan up from home plate, between the two dugouts. And if you stepped out the door last week, the snap of the flag across the empty, green field and the cottony puff of the clouds above made you palpably hungry, but not for tenderloin so much as for the ump to yell, "Play ball."

It is the 100th anniversary of the debut of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." So ballpark staffers were recruited to sing a verse with the surprise - to them - assist of Greg "The Bull" Luzinski and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, who were on hand to pitch, respectively, their bottled barbecue sauce (decent enough) and salsa (kind of watery).

When they got to "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks," it was pretty clear how much ballpark fare had changed. At the buffet, the single tray of grilled hot dogs was squeezed between dessert towers, and an assortment of pizza pies (kind of insipid).

Actually, hot dogs are still the biggest seller at the stadium. And, all right, they're not exactly a novelty. But may I suggest, frankly: Just because they aren't big with the Diamond Club swells is no reason to waterboard them in those hideous foil shrouds after, say, the third inning.

To give it its due, Aramark is giving some things the old college try. Dessert portions have been dialed down. There's the local corn thing. And building on its award last year from PETA (yes, that's People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as the "Most Vegetarian-Friendly Ballpark in North America," the concessionaire has fattened up its meatless menu.

This season even the blokes (or more likely their girlfriends) in the cheap seats won't be limited to last year's "mock steak" sandwich, veggie dogs and Gardenburgers; they'll have the new options of a wheat-gluten "chicken cheesesteak," or a crab-free crab cake just as themeless and weird as its contradictory name.

Why there aren't more actual vegetables at the league-leading vegetarian-friendly ballpark might be a question better left for another day.

Come to think of it, here's another one: Why can't the lines at the stands on game days be as short and sweet as at the media preview events?


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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