When I heard that kosher hot dogs - long a part of Baltimore's professional baseball scene - had arrived at RFK Stadium in Washington, I drove over to our nation's capital for a ballpark lunch.
I bit into an Abeles and Heymann all-beef dog, $4.50, at the stand called Kosher Sports near Section 220. It was flavorful, a little dry and not quite as warm as the all-beef dog I would subsequently eat during a suppertime visit to Camden Yards' kosher stand, on the lower level of the left field concourse.
Both ballpark meals were pleasing, but the results of the games were split. The Washington Nationals beat the San Francisco Giants, but the Orioles got pasted by the Seattle Mariners. Eating kosher, it seems, did not always guarantee victory for the home team.
Later, I rang up Jonathan Katz, a die-hard Mets fan, an observant Orthodox Jew and head of Kosher Sports. His company, in cooperation with stadium concessionaire Aramark, sells certified kosher food and drinks at stands in three Major League Baseball parks: RFK, Oriole Park and Shea Stadium in New York. It also sells at two professional football sites, M&T Bank Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Katz said he started this business three years ago in part as a reaction to an unhappy childhood memory. As a boy going to Mets games in the 1980s, he could not eat the hot dogs and much of the other stadium fare because they were not kosher. "All I could do was drink the soda or eat the ice cream," he told me in a telephone interview from his office in Englewood, N.J.
His goal of bringing kosher fare to sports stadiums has met with some success and some setbacks, he said. His stand at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., for example, has an extensive menu of kosher items, including pastrami sandwiches, turkey wraps and potato knishes, he said.
Yet he pulled out of Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands after a year when his stand could not sell its kosher hot dogs. A rival hot dog, Hebrew National, had the rights to that stadium, Katz said.
The fare sold in Baltimore and Washington and at other Kosher Sports stands is "Glatt Kosher," which, according to Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, is the "highest standard of kosher." Kurcfeld is a supervisor for Star-K Kosher Certification, the Pikesville-based enterprise that guarantees foods, including those served by Kosher Sports, meet kosher requirements.
Not only must the meat coming into the stands meet kosher standards for how the animals were slaughtered, the stands also must adhere to rules on how the foods are handled, Kurcfeld said. Kosher items must be stored separately, and the equipment used to prepare kosher dishes cannot touch nonkosher food, he said.
These requirements can make operating ballpark stands a challenge, Katz said. For example, before the stand at RFK could start dispensing kosher fare, a wall had to be constructed to isolate its products from other food.
Then there is the matter of missing weekend business. Kosher stands, observing the Jewish Sabbath, are closed Friday nights and Saturdays, traditionally busy times for stadium concessionaires.
"We also close on the Jewish holidays, which means we miss a couple of games during the football season," said Katz. "But it is what it is."
Kosher food has been sold in Baltimore stadiums for more than a decade, Kurcfeld told me. The Camden Yards kosher operation that Katz took over two years ago had stands at various locations in the ballpark since 1993. It was run by Project Ezra, a nonprofit, the rabbi said. Before that, Premier Caterers had a stand in Memorial Stadium during the last years that the Orioles played there, he said.
Many of the customers I spoke with who had patronized the Kosher Sports stands at RFK and Camden Yards were not aware they were eating kosher fare.
"The line was short here," said Mark Whitely of Abingdon, echoing an explanation I heard from most customers of why they had stopped at the stands.
However, Paul Bardack of Rockville, who keeps kosher, had made an effort to find the Camden Yards stand, something he said he does every time he comes to a game in Baltimore.
"This is a wonderful treat," said Bardack as he held a tray holding an Italian sausage, chicken tenders and a beer, all certified kosher. Bardack, like Katz, said he had memories of attending games as a boy in New York and not being able to eat much. Now, he said, "It is great to be able to eat ballpark food at the ballpark."
I spoke to Wes and Rocio Hyman of Baltimore, shortly after they experienced their first taste of ballpark kosher food.
He had the kosher hot dog because he wanted "more variety" in his ballpark fare. She had the kosher potato knish. It was, she said, "better than a hot dog."
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