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Match The Sport To The Food. Why The Connection?

Strawberries for Wimbledon. Credit: Barbara Haber

Strawberries for Wimbledon. Credit: Barbara Haber

While watching the Wimbledon tennis tournament this summer, I couldn’t help but notice the frequent mentioning of strawberries and cream, the foods that are emblematic of this traditional British sporting event. Recent statistics indicate that thousands of spectators consume 23 tons of the fruit, or more than 2 million berries, and 1,820 gallons of cream.

The sports’ food question arises — why has this particular dish become synonymous with this premier tennis competition? The answer is simple if not obvious: The opening of the matches coincides with the availability of locally grown strawberries, both occurring in early summer. And so this highly anticipated and desirable seasonal fruit has become a natural accompaniment to this singular event. The official Wimbledon strawberry, the Elsanta variety, is grown in Kent and is delivered each day at 5:30 a.m. to the games, where the berries are prepared for the fans.

The delicacy of this fare is in startling contrast to what is typically sold at U.S. sporting events. When we think about baseball, we think about hot dogs, peanuts and beer, although there are regional exceptions. At Boston’s Fenway Park, for instance, Italian vendors just outside the gates dish up sausage sandwiches with plenty of fried peppers and onions, while at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, home of the Orioles, visitors can get a crab cake sandwich. I ate my first tortilla pie at a rodeo in Houston. These hearty dishes are in the same spirit as much of the food served at tailgate parties, a popular ritual found at football games in the U.S.

Although fans of various teams claim ownership of the custom, tailgating most likely originated at Ivy League colleges in the days when team sports were played by gentlemen. Harvard was playing football as early as the 1860s when fans would turn up at games in horse-drawn carts and carriages and would bring along boxed lunches to eat beforehand. With the availability of the automobile, portable meals became even more customary, and the term “tailgating” came along. It derives from the rear doors of roadsters and station wagons, which, when folded down, formed a convenient buffet to hold picnic spreads. Soon fans, whether they were passionate alumni at college games or supporters of professional teams, developed the custom of arriving at parking lots hours before kickoff to spend time eating casually with friends.

Food's connection to sports takes a stranger twist when eating becomes a competition, such as Nathan's hot dog eating contest. Credit: Wikimedia/ dj0ser

Food’s connection to sports takes a stranger twist when eating becomes a competition, such as the celebrated Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. This was the 2006 version. Credit: Flickr / dj0ser

Tailgating evolved even more when instead of packing traditional picnics with sandwiches, salads, fruit and cookies, people brought along raw ingredients and barbecue gear so that parking lots took on the look of gigantic cookouts, with perspiring men hovering over charcoal fires. But elegance is not totally lost in this atmosphere. Some come to games prepared with folding tables and chairs, tablecloths, china, silver and fresh flowers, and picnic baskets filled with bottles of wine, brie and other cheeses, pâté and fruit.

Pimento sandwiches and mint juleps

Food at sporting events in the U.S. continues to reflect the region. The Masters tournament, held at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, is famous for its pimento cheese sandwiches, a dish favored by Southerners but with few Northern fans. And in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby, we get the renowned mint julep, a refreshing drink made with spearmint, bourbon, sugar and water. It carries with it the image of a Kentucky colonel, dressed in a white linen suit, sitting on a porch and sipping mint juleps from a silver cup.

Entertaining sporting events have evolved so that food is not only an accompaniment but the main attraction. Cheese-rolling, a quaint British custom that began as a local event near Gloucester in England, now draws international competitors. From the top of a steep hill, a 7-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese is sent rolling, soon followed by a heap of contestants who race after it, and the first person over the finish line keeps the cheese. The wheel of cheese can reach speeds of up to 70 mph, racers collide and accidents happen, but the ever-vigilant Brits supply ambulance services so that the injured can be rushed to the hospital.

Not to be outdone, Americans in Delaware have come up with an annual competition called Punkin Chunkin in which pumpkins are hurled through the air, and those who propel them the greatest distance are the winners. This event has different categories, depending on the age of the contestants and the form of the hurling. Homemade devices such as air cannons, catapults or centrifugal contraptions described as “windmills on steroids” can send pumpkins flying as far as 4,000 feet. The competition is held in November, suggesting that getting rid of unsold Halloween pumpkins may have been the initial motivation, but these days white pumpkins with thick and tough shells are used. I hasten to point out that some of the proceeds from Punkin Chunkin go for scholarships and other worthy causes.

Sports food: When eating is the event

Strange as these events may seem, to me the most bizarre are the popular eating contests, with entrants in races to see who, in a short amount of time, can stuff down the most asparagus, chicken wings or birthday cake, to name a few of the ongoing rivalries. But the mother of them all is Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held every Fourth of July at that famous Coney Island stand.

This gathering is clothed in the language of sports and is broadcast on ESPN, the sports network. The reigning champion is Joey Chestnut, known to all as “Jaws,” who has won the title for seven years straight. This year he managed to chomp down 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, a world record. His arm was raised in the air like a boxing champion, but instead of being bruised and cut, his face had a tinge of green.

Top photo: Strawberries for Wimbledon. Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.