By Luis Paez-Pumar
During an otherwise unremarkable early regular season series at Safeco Field in 2017, the Seattle Mariners ushered in a food phenomenon that has been the talk of the park for the past year and a half. We’re talking, of course, of chapulines, which are served at Edgar’s Cantina by Poquito’s out in centerfield of the Seattle stadium.
Chapulines are a dish that comes from the southern Oaxaca region of Mexico, where they are typically eaten during soccer matches. Grasshoppers in the region have been served as a snack for hundreds of years; the earliest record of their use as food appears to come from Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagun, whose Florentine Codex contains a reference to “chapolins” eaten by the indigenous peoples of Central America and Mexico in the 16th century.
Traditionally, the chapulines are cooked with a variety of spices, including garlic, lemon juice, and salt with agave. Some variations, including the one served at Safeco Field, also coat the critters in chile, giving them a spicy kick that Poquito’s Executive Chef Manny Arce compares favorably to a spicy peanut: “I think if I were to give someone a handful of chapulines and a handful of peanuts, and they didn’t know what they were eating, I don’t think there would be any resistance. It’s something spicy, it’s something crunchy, it’s just something good.”
Thanks to a perfect whirlwind of circumstances, the chile-covered grasshoppers at Safeco have been one of the hottest concessions in all of sports, giving the usually safe world of ballpark snacks a much-needed kick in the butt.
Do It For The ‘Gram
First, people love eating weird foods and daring each other to try something new. That’s a big reason why the chapulines craze has been a hit on social media, the town crier of 2018 communications, which seems to launch a new food-and-drink-based challenge once a month.
Even before first pitch at each game, fans are rushing to the so-called “Home Run Porch” of Safeco Field to get an order of chapulines and doing it for the ‘gram, Snap, or Twitter.
But novelty and the desire for social media likes can only drive a food craze for so long (RIP cronuts). What has kept the chapulines vibe going strong is the Mariners’ understanding of how this Oaxacan dish could translate to an American audience, particularly one in a burgeoning foodie town like Seattle that desires the new and different. Sure, eating grasshoppers might not be for everyone, but the Safeco Field team made a measured bet that they would resonate with enough people to make them worth investing in. That measured bet came as a result of an executive dinner at Poquito’s, one that changed the food culture of the ballpark for good.
“We were reprogramming our outfield area to represent local restaurants in our community, and one of our options for a local partner was Poquito’s.” That’s according to Steve Dominguez, Safeco Field General Manager for Centerplate, the team’s hospitality partner. As part of that rebranding, he and some of the executives from the Mariners went to Poquito’s for a tasting, to see if they would partner with the restaurant for Edgar’s Cantina (named so in honor of Seattle legend Edgar Martinez). “The ownership at the restaurant showed us all the different options for items at the park, and then brought out the chapulines as a ‘you can’t leave without trying these’ gambit. As expected, some people liked them, some people made a face.”
Arce remembers it similarly: “As I was preparing some of the items we were going to have, I thought they would get a kick out of the chapulines. I love seeing how people react to them, so I sent them out and they definitely had mixed reactions. But they saw that there was value in the uniqueness.” For Dominguez, though, the uniqueness was only part of it: “We weren’t trying to add a gimmick. It was more that Poquito’s tries to bring a lot of authenticity to their food as possible. Our goal was to offer that authentic, traditional Oaxacan experience.”
Finally, there was the dish’s scarcity. After that tasting dinner, the Mariners, as Dominguez admits, created buzz around the chapulines by limiting the amount that would be sold per game. In a fitting tribute to one of the best players in franchise history, there are only 312 orders sold at Safeco each time out; the number 312 corresponds to Edgar Martinez’s lifetime batting average. By limiting the supply amidst a strong demand for the chapulines, the Mariners and Poquito’s have created a wave of interest in their unique dish.
One thing is for sure: chapulines are worth the trouble. Dominguez has been blown away by the demand, and has in turn raised his order with an importer to make sure that Mariners fans don’t go without the tasty Oaxacan treats. At the end of this past season, he had to re-up on his order because fans were so into the dish that they sold out of their entire stock early. That won’t happen for the 2019 season, as Dominguez says he’s upped his order to a whopping 800 kilograms (1763 pounds) of the little critters.
Whether Mariners fans are trying to connect with the Oaxacan community through one of its signature dishes, or whether they just want to post videos of themselves eating grasshoppers, the chapulines phenomenon is here to stay, and the world of ballpark food is all the better for it.
Featured Image: Courtesy Seattle Mariners