SICK TO OUR STOMACHS
The Big Business of Football Food
We celebrate a sport of tremendous athleticism and finesse by gorging ourselves on hot dogs, pizza, Buffalo wings, and beer. It’s time for a new era of football food.
Perhaps the most shared aspect NFL football fans have with one another is their culture of food.
Apart from the tradition of the tailgate—where food is slowly cooked the night before in a Crock-Pot or grilled over charcoal in the company of friends and family in a parking lot—the food fans across America purchase in their NFL stadium, order at the pub, or order-in for home football-watching consumption is a one-eighty to our country’s rich culture of eating good, and as of recent, sustainable food.
To put blame on the fans and their harrowing food choices would be unfair, for the fans are too busy cheering for their team, and it’s their day off, after all—who wants to cook?
Yet in a sport where the player is so athletic, so incredibly powerful while possessing a tremendous amount of finesse and awe-inspiring agility, why do we choose to view such an art form with food that cats eat as scraps (and then throw up)?
“The foods [that people eat when they watch football] are not inherently bad, but as the NFL has become a formidable business, the forces of volume, scale, mass sponsorship, and advertisement have made the foods more industrialized, processed, fried, deep-fried, frozen, and designed to be eaten while drinking copious amounts of soft drinks or beer,” says New York- and Sonoma-based food and restaurant consultant Clark Wolf.
With only eight home games each year, NFL team owners need to make the most food and beverage profit from their fan base, and some have the proclivity to charge more than others—just because they can.
The Cleveland Browns sold the most expensive hot dog in 2013 at $6 each, while Zygi Wilf, principal owner of the Minnesota Vikings, sold his hot dogs for $3. Is there a difference in quality? Probably not. (But wouldn’t it be easier to fund a new $975 million Vikings stadium by charging fans, say, a couple extra dollars more for their hot dogs and taxing people less? Alas, that’s for another time.)
“The NFL owners and advertisers would rather people die of obesity, and get themselves every last dollar, than improve the lives of fans by giving them not only great entertainment, but good food,” says Wolf. “The irony is actually quite funny. Corporations want to serve their guests really good food in the box seats, but in order to serve good food, it’s catering.”
Be it at a stadium or a local pub, Buffalo wings, the quintessential American football spectator appetizer, now commonly ordered on Seamless on Sundays, are about as processed, adulterated, and deep-fried as it gets with our football eating customs.
The old Anthony Bourdain of Travel Channel’s No Reservations would maybe eat an order of Buffalo wings, but the new Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown just wouldn’t. It would seem Buffalo wings fall under the same category as McDonald’s McNuggets, about which Bourdain has commented—to paraphrase—as the most disgusting thing he’s ever eaten.
“As the NFL realizes that concussions put their players in danger, the fans need to realize that the food’s doing it, too,” says Wolf.
Consider that one single restaurant-styled Buffalo wing has about 72 calories, and one tablespoon of ranch dressing has about 70 calories. Seven wings and one tablespoon of ranch down your palate and into your stomach is about 570 calories, and the 1,974 mg of sodium from the Buffalo Wild Wings Southwest Dippers will get you more than a day’s worth of sodium (1,500 mg) recommended by the American Heart Association.
As it pertains to health, sodium has been linked to contributing to high blood pressure, and eating wings every Sunday six months out of the year won’t help your cause. In fact, keeping the systolic number of your blood pressure below 120, according to a recent study by SprintTrial that was so conclusive it ended two years early, could help to significantly reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
Is there any hope that our football food culture will improve while watching the NFL? Wolf thinks so.
“Football and spectator sports are on the road to better food. More young people are going into the food business and the people selling the bad food are old farts—old corporate hacks. There are millennials making good food and street food that is very good,” he says.
“People want good food and they will pay for it,” Wolf says. “And that will be the answer. Look at what Chef Traci Des Jardins has done near AT&T Park in San Francisco, albeit a baseball stadium, but she’s serving good, sustainable pub food.”
When MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, or America’s newest super villain, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, throw touchdown passes on Sundays, do they celebrate by eating a half-dozen Buffalo Wild Wings Southwest Dippers?
Brady probably does, but that doesn’t mean you have to.