Aug 25, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Charlie Estrada cooks some food on a grill before a game between the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Food Culture in the USA’s Great Sports Cities


To me, there is almost nothing better than a day at a baseball game. Sitting there, watching the slow-paced but thoughtful game, eating a bratwurst hot dog with mustard, drinking a beer – it is the quintessential American experience. This got me thinking about how many of the top sports cities in the US also have great food cultures. After all, you cannot very well go to Chicago to catch a Bears game, without having some deep-dish Chicago pizza, can you? And you would be a fool to check out a New Orleans Saints game without indulging in some Creole gumbo, or boiled crawfish. So let’s take a look at some of the great food cultures, in some of America’s great sports cities.

What makes a great sports city, and what makes a great food city? Well, as for sports, cities can be measured not only in the number and success of their teams and the different sports they play, but also in the undying fervor and loyalty of the local fans, and their knowledge of the game. As for food, well, there is great food all over the US, and when it comes to the big game, many fans love food that is full of robust flavor, filling, and easy to eat while watching. Some people believe that American cuisine is all represented by some of the bland, boring food of some of the Midwest, but the truth is that there is great food all over.

Let’s begin with Chicago, the underrated queen of American food. Chicago is famous for its pizza, and for good reason. The most famous Chicago pizza includes thick, savory dough that is higher at the edges than the toppings. Speaking of toppings, there are copious amounts of delicious cheese and thick, hearty tomato sauce, as well as anything else you ask for. A city founded in large parts by Germans and Poles, Chicago offers pizza that is equally hearty and filling. But Chicago is more than pizza.

Chicago hot dogs, unlike their New York cousins, are rich and full of toppings. Pork is put into natural casing on poppy-seed bread, and traditionally topped with delicious tomatoes, onions, relish, peppers, celery salt, and tangy mustard. These hot dogs are not thin, flimsy, grocery-store wieners on low-quality white bread. No, they are full of complex flavor, and very filling, perfect for watching a game on a cold Chicago night.

Or what about an Italian beef? This classic sandwich is stuffed with thinly-sliced roast beef, on a yeasty roll soaked in the beef’s gravy. Add some sweet peppers, mozzarella, and giardiniera (pickled vegetables), and you have a sandwich that is packed with powerful punches of tangy, rich flavors.

You cannot talk about great sports and food cities without mentioning New Orleans. For most of my life, the Saints had a pretty lousy record, but that all changed when they won the Superbowl in 2010. If the NBA is your thing, then watch a fast-paced Pelicans game. While the variety of professional sports teams in New Orleans is not enormous, the dedication and obsession of the fans more than makes up for it. And as for history, the fact is that the modern version of soccer (football in the rest of the world) originated in New Orleans.

And as for food, wow! New Orleans cuisine is unique in the US, and has been influenced by French, Spanish, Italian, African, and Caribbean cuisines. Spicy and rich with flavor, New Orleans food must be experienced to appreciate. Take gumbo, for example – that French roux-based stew with meat or seafood, delicious aromatic vegetables, rice, and spice. It is all of the style and class of French cuisine, with the spice and wildness of Africa and the Caribbean.

Maybe you prefer seafood? Some shrimp jambalaya or crawfish étouffée would really knock your socks off as you watch a Saints game. Both are made from local seafood, rice, rich, hearty seasonings, and lots of spice. There is simply nothing like either anywhere else in the world.

Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, is also the city of sports and food love. Whether watching the Phillies, the Eagles, or the 76ers, Philadelphia sports fans are famous for their rabid enthusiasm, and their ability to change player loyalties on a dime: one minute they hate a player, the next minute, they believe he is god on earth. Well, when it comes to food, Philadelphia residents are just as passionate.

After all, the Philly cheese steak sandwich is an American icon. Sliced beef and warm, melted cheese on an Italian roll – how could it not be delicious? And forget the Cheez Whiz nonsense: for a really delicious Philly cheese steak, opt for melted Provolone cheese. A really fresh, hot Philly cheese steak is tangy and delicious, and perfect for watching games.

How about a hoagie? This Philadelphia culinary landmark is a delicious blend of Italian meats, cheeses, and vegetables, stuffed to capacity inside rich Italian bread. Add a little red wine vinegar on top, and there is enough flavor in this beauty to tempt all of your taste buds. And because the hoagie is enormous and filling, it will last throughout an entire game. Or try the hoagie’s cousin, the roast pork Italian, with succulent pork and delightfully bitter broccoli rabe (and cheese, of course).

In the mood for something more exotic? Well, Philadelphia has you covered. Philadelphia pepper pot is a soup based on beef tripe (cow stomach meat) and spicy vegetables, perfect to enjoy during a cold winter Phillies game. Or have some snapper turtle soup with sherry to warm you up. And never forget a hot, soft Philadelphia pretzel with German mustard!

I bet you were expecting New York here? Well, as great as New York cuisine is, I have a surprise for you: Detroit! That’s right, Detroit is not the burnt-out wasteland that national media would have you believe. No, it is a thriving city, with a great sports scene, and a vibrant culinary scene. The Pistons and the Red Wings are really exciting to watch, but not without some great local food to chow down on during the game.

While Detroit Coney Island hotdogs, with their natural casing and their all-beef sauce, are great, you can delve deeper and eat a thick, juicy steak with zip sauce. Detroit zip sauce is a rich, butter-based sauce full of mouth-watering garlic, herbs, mustard, cumin, pepper, Worcestershire, and other delicacies, depending on the recipe. And nothing says football like a hearty, zesty steak.

My favorite sandwich in the world is the Reuben sandwich. Well, its delicious cousin, Detroit’s oddly-named Dinty Moore sandwich, is corned beef, cole slaw, Swiss cheese, mustard, and thousand island dressing. The origin of the name is enshrouded in mystery, being attributed to several color characters in American history. But the flavor is not mysterious: when the ingredients are fresh and of high quality, a Dinty Moore sandwich ranks a close second to the Reuben as one of the world’s most flavorful, tangy, rich sandwiches.

There are so many great sports and food cities in the USA, that it is impossible to name them all. But there is a trend: where sports fans are the most loyal and fervent, the food is the tasiest and heartiest. Why is that? I suspect that it is because great sports fans are a hearty bunch. After all, great fans endure bad weather, hot sun, and long hours to watch their favorite teams play. And with such a complex, robust personality, it only stands to reason that they love complex, robust, flavorful foods.

Tags: Chicago Food New Orleans Philadelphia Popular

  • Chris Beyer

    You kidding me man??? You’re from New Orleans but you call gumbo French?

    And you wonder why us actual Cajuns are often forced to disown you guys…..Stick to what you know (Mardi Gras) and leave the rest to us in Lafayette.

  • Matthew Miller

    Chris, I grew up both in New Orleans and in Lafayette. Gumbo is influenced by French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisines. The “French” part is the dark roux. But of course gumbo, as we know it, is 100% Louisiana. My only point was that it came about as a result of a combination of those influences.

  • Matthew Miller

    Chris, I see what you mean now — the way I phrased it was bad. It looks like I meant that gumbo itself is French. What I meant was that the roux part of it is French. Sorry, my mistake!