I had taken one snow-covered step inside my friend’s apartment when the question came hurtling at me with the type of urgency usually reserved for a crisis: “What are we going to eat?”
This was a needed conversation. The start of the Super Bowl was just an hour away and we had yet to figure out our meal plans. Maybe we were having a crisis. What happens, after all, if you try to watch football without surrounding yourself with beige-colored, heavily fried foodstuffs?
We didn’t want to find out. We ordered some sandwiches.
Food and sport are unifying acts, shared indulgences, and social signifiers. Sporting food traditions are both sweeping and diverse, broad and regional. Beer and peanuts, for example, are nationally synonymous with baseball, but depending on where you’re watching the game the local delicacy will vary. At Fenway Park in Boston bread rolls with fried peppers and onions are served outside the gates. In Baltimore, at Camden Yards, crab cake sandwiches are a popular choice. In Seattle, at Safeco Field, it’s hard to miss the Ivar Dog, fried cod on a hot dog bun.
These regional differences are continuous throughout the league but they’re tied together by the collective sense of identity that they foster. To cheer for a team, or a sport, is to become part of a larger social phenomenon. Food is another practice of that shared identity. Showing up at a stadium wearing the jersey of the team you support is one thing, eating the right food is another.
The relationship between food and sport boils down to identity, according to Barbara Haber, one of the world’s preeminent food historians and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. “People like rituals and create them to reinforce what is special about their identity,” she says. Haber, described by the New Yorker as having “invented the history of women and food,” offers football as an example. It’s a “hyper masculine” sport and the food that’s associated with it is often deemed “man food,” she says.
“Lots of beer, chicken wings in lots of sauce, greasy bowls of cheesy stuff, lots of pizza—high fat!,” says Haber, whose work gave credibility to the study of food history and helped establish it as a viable field of academic and professional study. “Historically, groups have always used food to differentiate themselves from everyone else—the kosher laws observed by orthodox Jews and the former tradition of eating fish on Friday, which some Catholics still observe because they like the differentiation. It's all about identity.”
Food and sport traditions codify the event: strawberries with cream at Wimbledon, mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, Frito pie at the Houston Rodeo—but beyond identity, food helps create a spectacle out of a game.
Because sport is consumed on a shared timeline, says Dr. Andy Billings, a professor in the University of Alabama’s Sports Communication Program and the Ronald Reagan Endowed Chair of Broadcasting, food is another way to make the event more like a festival.
Billings cites some figures to back this up: Just three percent of all live sports is time-shifted, for example, compared to nearly 40 percent of all other programming. “Sport operates on a parameter of liveness that makes it unique,” he says.
Claude Fischler, a French social scientist, once wrote that the way any group eats helps to assert its “diversity, hierarchy and organization but also, at the same time, both its oneness and the otherness of whoever eats differently.” In other words, you are what you eat. Sport is used to express and negotiate identity, and so is food. When taken together, their ability to operate as social identifiers is amplified.
Tailgating, perhaps the most recognizable merger of sport and food, has become a separate sport unto itself. It’s evolved from arriving at an event with packaged food to on-site preparation to a competition of who can make the experience more seminal. This also lends further meaning to the activity: Tailgating becomes a separate world with its own distinct practices and values, a place where community can be developed and reaffirmed and acceptance can be gained.
Food and sport operate on planes of passivity. The modern eater, Fischler writes, has become a “pure consumer,” in that most know very little, if anything, about the history, production, and origin of the food that they eat.
In sport, there is a temporary loss of the here and now, there is an escape, and through that a suspension of worry. People just want to enjoy the event.
Part of that release, Billings says, is inevitably the tacit permission to cheat on diets. “Eating chicken wings at a sports tailgate is part of the experience, whereas doing so in other forums would be more decadent.” To that end, food is used as an escape in the same manner that sport is.
As the mediation and consumption of sport evolves, the food routines are likely to stay the same, championed for their tradition and embraced for the comfort they prescribe through shared identity. To be regarded as a sports fan, it helps to eat like one.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.