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ALL STAR FEAST At food fests, vendors pitch fares common to home palates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Welcome home, baseball fans. Pick up a plate, grab a fork and dig in, when major-league baseball All-Star festivities turn Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards area into a giant smorgasbord.

From Friday to Tuesday there'll be crab cakes and bratwurst, cheese steak and chicken, fish tacos and fried lake trout -- not to mention the hot dogs, cotton candy, peanuts and pretzels that are mandatory for any ballpark experience.

It's all part of All-Star Week, when baseball breaks out its legends and Baltimore celebrates its unique culinary legacy.

"We decided in early April that we wanted an old-time street festival," said Mark Strausman, the New York chef who is coordinating all the food-related activities of the All-Star FanFest to be held at the Baltimore Convention Center and Festival Hall, and of the All-Star StreetFest, to be held on the parking lot across Camden Street from Festival Hall.

Working with the Baltimore Office of Promotions, Mr. Strausman signed up more than a dozen local vendors, some famous, some street-fair regulars, to offer baseball fans and visitors to the open-air festival "a true taste of Baltimore."

Among the better-known folks who'll be offering Chesapeake cuisine are Richard and Rose Cernak, of Obrycki's (steamed crabs, crab soup, crab balls), Nancy Longo of Pierpoint restaurant (Maryland fried chicken, sweet-potato fries) and Randy Stahl, of the Brass Elephant (grilled Italian sweet sausage, fried mozzarella with marinara sauce, cookies and brownies).

But there will also be people selling falafel and hummus (Carlos and Pauline Taylor of Live It Not Diet), shrimp (Myrna Cohn, of B&J; Shuckers), snow cones (Hazel Jones), pit beef (Jose Ribas of Forum Caterers), hot dogs and corn on the cob (Sina Reid, of Dogs Plus), Sichuan pork and cashew chicken (An Pan Lee of Uncle Lee's), cotton candy and funnel cakes (Debbie White), chicken wings and fried lake trout (Rogers McCaskill), just for starters. There will be lemonade (from John Kousouris of Oasis), soft drinks, bottled water and ice tea, but no beer. And nothing will cost more than $6.

"The whole thing is all these local people doing their own thing," said Mr. Strausman, executive chef at New York's Coco Pazzo restaurant. He's also a baseball fan who came to Baltimore on his own a couple of weeks ago to see a game at Camden Yards.

Most of the vendors are used to street fairs; officials at the Baltimore Office of Promotions drew on the ranks of ArtScape food sellers to provide Mr. Strausman with choices. ArtScape, the annual celebration of the arts in the Mount Royal area, is one place Mr. McCaskill, a barber by trade, practices his other craft. "I love to cook," he said. "I do as many [festivals] as I can."

Sharing the experience

The city asked for, and got, a say in the way StreetFest operates. "We wanted to have a community counterpart to the All-Star FanFest, a free event so residents who don't have baseball tickets could have some of the All-Star experience," said Tracy Baskerville, of the promotion office. StreetFest will also have music, dancing, ethnic celebrations, crafts and activities for children, Ms. Baskerville said.

Indoors, FanFest, a sort of interactive festival for baseball fans, features games, cards and memorabilia, high-tech batting cages major-leaguer on a life-size video screen "pitches" the ball), mock-ups of a locker room and a dugout, events, souvenirs, and player autographs. And food. FanFest's food vendor, Service America, will feature food from major-league parks, including crab cakes from Baltimore, hot sausage from Cincinnati, Philly cheese steak subs, and baby back ribs from Toronto.

This is the third year for the FanFest event, which accompanies major-league baseball's mid-season All-Star Game around the United States and Canada as it skips from American to National league cities. It was in Toronto in 1991 and in San Diego last year. (Timed-entry tickets to FanFest cost $12 or less.)

"We wanted to share the enthusiasm with a broader audience," especially families, said Richard White, president of Major League Baseball Properties. "Qualitatively, we also wanted to pay attention to details." The food matters a lot, he said. "It would be very simple for us to move into a convention center and sell whatever they sell there [to eat]. We said, why not make it more than that? Why not bring in great food from all the major-league ballparks -- bratwurst from Milwaukee and crab cakes from Baltimore?

Scoring with Chesapeake fare

"And then we thought, if we could also provide food that's indigenous to the Chesapeake area, we could really have a hit on our hands."

But having the community event outdoors was almost accidental. Major League Baseball Properties, the licensing, marketing and publishing arm of major-league baseball, had been scouting office buildings and hotels for more space, but a glance at an overhead view of the ballpark area made a street festival an obvious solution. Mr. White credits city officials for "looking out for community interests that otherwise might have been left out," assuring that minority vendors are included and community groups and neighborhood associations have a role.

Not to be outdone, ARA Leisure Services, the food purveyor for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, is taking advantage of the All-Star game to introduce a new item in the ballpark: Mamie's Rotisserie Chicken, from Stacy and Stephen Woodyard. The rotisserie operation will be in the bullpen-picnic area, said Larry Smith, group manager for ARA, with a cart somewhere along the main concourse. Once a game starts, the picnic area is open to all ticket-holding fans.

No one knows how many fans of food and baseball will make their way to the FanFest and StreetFest, but estimates range from "tens of thousands" to 250,000. And Mr. Stahl joked that his job was preparing "real simple food for about half a million people."

Call for crabs

Figuring out how much food will be needed has been one of Mr. Strausman's biggest headaches. He originally asked Obrycki's for 250 bushels of steamed hard crabs a day, a figure that made the Cernaks reel.

Mr. Cernak said he explained it would be impossible to handle that many crabs in a day. Instead, he said, "We'll be having about 50 bushels of crabs a day," which he thinks should be plenty, considering how much other food there is. Obrycki's will oblige out-of-towners with crab-picking lessons.

StreetFest is the first time the venerable Fells Point establishment has participated in a food festival and Mr. Cernak is looking forward to it. "It could be really a fantastic thing," he said. "Everybody's going to be doing their best out there. It'll show people that this is not just a little bitty town with a nice ballpark."

One person already convinced is Mark Strausman, a man of infectious enthusiasm who has developed a fondness for Baltimore while working on the project.

"It's a great city," he said. "If there was one town to do a street fair with food of the city" it's this one, he said. "I don't think there's another city in the United States better for it than Baltimore."

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