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Betsy Block

NPR Online

Out of the Park

Yawkey Way, the street just outside Boston's fabled Fenway Park, is hopping. But folks are asking for the mustard, not the score. Who can blame them? They've been bewitched by the smell of sausages and franks permeating the air. Given the aromatic circumstances, it's understandable that Boston Red Sox fans aren't just fanatical, they're famished.

As the locals know, a summer night spent eating junk and watching the Sox at Fenway is magical. It has been satisfying both body and soul since the park's first pitch in April of 1912. Since then, Fenway has seen countless baseball luminaries pass through its hallowed gates. Perhaps just as important, it's been stuffing loyal Sox fans (and even a few Yankee devotees) since the very beginning.

Some of the magic can be created off the ball field and in the living room, although the volume is not quite the same. In the '06 season alone, baseball fans at major league parks will eat enough hot dogs to stretch coast to coast, or 2,800 miles of wieners, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. And that's not taking into account the sausages, caramel popcorn and other treats going down the collective American gullet.

On opening day at Fenway, 5,000 bags of peanuts, 5,000 Italian sausages with peppers and onions, 1,700 gallons of soda, 1,300 bags of popcorn and 500 bags of cotton candy were sold. A baseball game and thousands of pounds of junk food; talk about a win-win.

Unfortunately, America's pastime has become associated with scandal and greed. Plus, the food has gotten fancy: Chinese chicken salad at Fenway, Caesar salad at Angel Stadium, and panini at RFK. It just ain't right.

Baseball is straying so far from its humble roots that the sport is in danger of losing its next generation of customers... I mean, fans. My 10-year-old son's best friend might be called a baseball addict. Over dinner one night this spring, he said he didn't want to go to a game this year. "The players are, like, greedy and unloyal," he complained.

I agreed vigorously, though I failed to mention another concern: the average price of a game for a family of four rings in at an astounding $300 these days -- and that's if you can get your tickets legally.

It's hard to get swept up in the myth and legend of baseball, get rocked by its emotional highs and lows, and delight in overstuffing ourselves with sausage, corn dogs and Cracker Jack caramel popcorn if we can't even afford the cost of a game. If we wanted to recapture the glow of an almost-forgotten past, we'd need to take matters into our own hands.

So we invited the young baseball friend over for a game and served the kids corn dogs and caramel popcorn in their seats -- the ones on our tacky but comfortable couch at home, that is. We could yell at the TV, jump up and down, shake our fists and generally act as if we were actually in the stands, while saving hundreds of dollars. Because like the fans wisely clustered around the sausage carts outside the park while the game rages within, we know that baseball may be good, but baseball eats are great.

Summer Shack Corn Dogs

This recipe is adapted from Jasper White's The Summer Shack Cookbook (to be published in 2007.) Start with a good hot dog: all-beef, natural casings, kosher or kosher-style. You will need 10, 8-inch wooden skewers, a large (12-inch or larger) skillet with high sides, a deep-frying thermometer or an electric deep fryer, a sheet pan and a pair of tongs. Because the entire dog-on-stick is about 10 inches long, the traditional Dutch oven or electric deep fryer won't work for this recipe. The whole corn dog, including the stick, needs to fit into the frying pan of hot oil.

Makes 10 corn dogs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup yellow corn meal

1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon finely minced scallion or Spanish onion

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup whole milk

10 beef hot dogs, 1 1/2 to 2 ounces (5 or 6 inches long)

Corn oil, canola oil or other vegetable oil for deep-frying (about 4 cups)

1 jar of your favorite mustard

Dill pickle spears

Combine the flour, corn meal, baking powder, sugar, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl, whisk well and set aside.

Combine the scallion, egg and milk in a small bowl and whisk well.

Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet. Do not over mix. Cover the batter and allow to rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and line a sheet pan with paper towels. Heat 2 inches of oil (about 4 cups) in a large, high-sided skillet to 350 degrees.

While the oil is heating, skewer each hot dog lengthwise through the center, stopping about 1 inch from the top. When the oil is hot, dip a hot dog into the batter, using the stick to twirl the dog and coat it evenly. It's easiest to dip if you either use a tall glass or a shallow, narrow pan so that you can stick the dog straight up and down or else roll it. I prefer the up-and-down method so you're not worrying about getting the stick covered in batter. A spoon is helpful throughout the process. Make sure the end of the hot dog is sealed, but try not to get too much batter on the stick. Once coated, remove the dog from the batter and twirl it once to let excess batter drip back into the bowl.

Holding the stick end, lower the corn dog into the oil, keeping it suspended about 5 seconds before letting go (this prevents the corn dog from sticking to the bottom of the pan). Dip and fry 2 more hot dogs (do not fry more than 3 or 4 dogs at a time.) Turn the dogs occasionally with tongs to make sure they cook evenly. Fry the dogs until the corn coating is a deep, rich brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Lift them out of the oil one at a time with tongs and transfer to the lined baking sheet and into the oven. Continue to dip and fry the remaining dogs, making sure to let the oil come back to 350 degrees between batches. (As you get near the end of the batter, you may need to spoon it over the dog to coat it evenly.) If you have any batter left over, drop it in spoonfuls into the hot fat and cook into until nice and brown for little fritters, then drain on a paper bag until cool and drizzle with maple syrup.

Serve the corn dogs hot with your favorite mustard and dill pickle spears.

Homemade Cracker Jack-Style Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts

This method of popping corn is adapted from Alton Brown's brilliant carcinogen-free microwave popcorn recipe.

1/2 cup unpopped popcorn (this will make the end result super-caramelly; if you want it less sticky, use 2/3 cup unpopped popcorn)

4 teaspoons olive oil (5-6 teaspoons for 2/3 cup popcorn)

1 brown paper sandwich bag

1 piece of adhesive tape

1/2 cup shelled peanuts (Spanish if you have them)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 tablespoon molasses (you can use 2 tablespoons if you love molasses)

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the popcorn in a brown paper bag (if you're using 2/3 cup, you might want to split it into two paper bags), pour in 4 teaspoons of olive oil (or more for the larger amount), and close the bag with a piece of tape. Heat it on high in the microwave for 3 minutes. Put it in a bowl.

Add the peanuts to the popcorn.

For the caramel, heat the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses and salt in a pan on the stove until the butter is melted and the sugar is smooth and not grainy anymore. Pour this mixture over the popcorn and peanuts, stirring well. Pour it all onto a cookie sheet and place in oven for 10-12 minutes, stirring once or twice. (It will be gooey and wet.)

Let air dry until crisp, then store in an airtight container until the first pitch.

(The cookie sheet will look dauntingly dirty, but hot water will easily erase all traces of sticky caramel sauce.)