Baseball gives me an instant hit of happy. A good way to feel foolish, though: be the only one in your posse to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
That was how it was the first time we went as a family to Yankee Stadium. My son, Q, wasn’t much more than a year old. Surrounded by tens of thousands of other singing fans, I nevertheless felt like an idiot belting it out next to my silent spouse, aka The Frenchman, with a baby strapped to my chest.
My husband is, well, French. He didn’t grow up with the game. I watched his enthusiasm fall farther behind the count from one inning to the next until we were struck out: Strike one, the national anthem, at which he understandably balked. Strike two, the game itself with its long innings, perceived “lack of action,” and a set of rules that got lost in translation. Strike three? The Seventh Inning Stretch and a half-eaten bag of Cracker Jack.
I’d flagged down the vendor a couple of innings back. It’s what my family had always done while I was growing up. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. Right? Without fail, we’d pass a box of the caramel popcorn around, grouse about how the peanuts crept to the bottom, and hope for a decent prize—maybe a whistle, or a ring like the one given to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I never ate Cracker Jack outside the stadium, but in the stands, it was sacred. Baseball wouldn’t be baseball without sucking those last golden-hued, stubborn flecks off of your fingers.
But that afternoon, Q was too young to eat it, The Frenchman was too French. Not that he’s a food snob (the hot dogs went down fine), but something bothers him about eating in public, and popcorn is the worst: at the movies it drives him crazy, all that chewing going on around him in the dark. When I offered him the Cracker Jack, he declined with a Gallic shrug. And I’ll tell you: as an adult, it’s simply just no fun, eating Cracker Jack all by your lonesome. Besides, it was getting chewy in the heavy August air.
With time, things changed. Q and I played a lot of catch, and I took him to more games. He realized the ballpark was one of the only places I let him scream his head off, and I finally had someone to sing with during the Stretch. I bought Cracker Jack and held my breath, waiting for his verdict.
Turns out Q isn’t really fond of Cracker Jack, either. He’ll eat it. But he avoids the peanuts and thinks the popcorn “doesn’t taste like caramel.” (This critique came on the heels of my making Jacques Pépin’s caramels—soft and buttery, robed in chocolate—so I understood where he was coming from. What can I say? It’s in his blood.) And the prizes that are supposed to make it all worthwhile? Branded as lame. I have to agree. Gone are the nifty little magnifying glasses, the bead mazes and puzzle games of my youth. Now it’s ugly paper finger puppets with dumb jokes printed on the back. Nothing to lure either of us away from the iPhone and Doodle Jump.
So what. I could do baseball without Cracker Jack. At least, I thought I could.
What drove me into the kitchen was Little League, which Q began this year. I never meant to be one of those moms, relegated to cheerleading, but I had to admit early on that my ability to help the team was limited. Dressing the catcher was pretty much it. And scoring. And snacks. And snacks led me inexorably back to Cracker Jack.
Ever the optimist, I thought that maybe if I set to making my own caramel popcorn, I could find a sweet spot. Strike a compromise between the concession treats of my childhood and the demands of Q and his teammates’ discerning palates. I tried a bunch of recipes, but they yielded corn that was too hard, or too sweet, or too caramel-saucy. Finally, I found one recipe that seemed right—a teetering balance of crunch and chew, a lighter version of the classic baseball confection, despite what seemed a decadent use of butter.
We reached the post-season. One evening, I casually slipped a bowl of this tawny-glazed caramel corn in front of my son during a playoff game.
“It’s Cracker Jack-ish,” he said. (For those who aren’t familiar with it, there’s a children’s book called Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds, in which a boy is set free artistically when his sister calls his failed drawing of a flower in a vase “vase-ish.”) Q’s right. But it’s actually better than its namesake. We filled the bowl a few times, singing anthems and scoring the game as we went. Thinking no one would notice perhaps, The Frenchman picked off the rest of our ersatz Cracker Jack while watching the French News. Granted, that’s not baseball, but at least I know now, I’ve found the right bait.
So, Cracker Jack-ish it is. The buttery, slightly sticky sweet that will hold us together through baseball’s big moment, the World Series. Who knows? It might even keep us satisfied until Spring Training.