Let’s start with a quick ode to Wimbledon. If you were drawing up a perfect sporting event this would come close. The grounds are intimate, but sufficiently spacious. The annual tennis tournament is held near a major City of the World (London); but in a pastoral village, quiet and precious. There’s an undeniable elegance to the place; but also a rowdiness. You’d we welcome wearing a seersucker suit or a sundress; you’d also be welcome wearing a rainbow wig. There are abundant traditions; but also nods away from the past and toward the future. At Augusta, they prohibit you from bringing your mobile phone on the course; here they encourage you to link photos from your Instagram feed to theirs.
Most of the place is strenuously hospitable to the customer. In the U.S. sportscape, “fan-friendly” means…what exactly? Some extra space between urinals, this in a venue the taxpayer has at partially funded? A concession service whereby you buy $15 water-beer without leaving your seat? Brain-cell-destroying promotions during breaks in play?
Here at Wimbledon, “fan friendly” means that most tickets—provided you can get them—have a face value of under $100 and are distributed democratically. Friends of mine flew in from New York last week and camped out in “the queue” for two nights to watch Federer. Though in need of showers, they were successful in their missions and, for less than the price of a Yankees game, they were four rows behind the court for Federer’s second-round win.
Fan friendly means there’s a lawn festooned with pillows, encouraging midday naps. It means untold millions forsaken in revenue (no naming rights for Centre Court; no courtside sponsors; no gouging resale ticket market) all in the name of aesthetics and making sure the experience remains pure. I write this column on the middle Sunday of Wimbledon, as the grass courts sit fallow and there are no matches on the schedule. Why? Because—at a time when the Olympics start on a Friday to capitalize on three weekend sessions—Wimbledon has always maintained a weekend day of rest, mostly out of respect for the neighbors’ right to quiet.
All that flattery out of the way….you know where Wimbledon could use a serious upgrade? In its signature dish. Mention to folks that you’re heading to Wimbledon and inevitably the response entails some variation of “enjoy the strawberries and cream.” It terms of gustatory pairings, this fare is to Wimbledon what, say, chocolate is to Switzerland, chili is to Cincinnati, barbecue to Austin.
The obligatory history paragraph: Strawberries have been considered a European delicacy for centuries, both for aesthetic and pragmatic reasons. Strawberries were said to cure everything from labor pains to bad breath. They got symbolism points for their heart shape. And, of course, they tend to taste pretty good. Thomas Wolsey is credited with first serving the combination of strawberries and cream back in 1509 at a banquet. Cream was a part of the diet of the peasants, and the combination was seen as unifying the rich and the poor, the equivalent of the Cawley Family eating with Miss Patmore, Daisy and the rest of the gang in the Downton basement.
Strawberries and cream have been associated with Wimbledon since its inception in 1877, and soon the dish became synonymous with the tournament. So much so that each year, we get a barrage of meaningless statistics about the volume sold. (Something like 25 tons this year, though if it were 250 tons or 2.5 tons, really, who would know the difference?) And, again with the fan friendliness: The strawberries and cream are subsidized by the tournament to keep the price at £2.50, or roughly $3.20. In this post-Brexit Britain, fruit prices are on the rise. But as the tournament head of food and beverages, Anthony Davies, puts it: "[Food price inflation] is something we saw coming down the line. For us it’s about making the right choices so our guests have the best experience.” At most sporting events, they gouge the fan on comestibles. Here, the event shoulders some of the cost.
There is only one unfortunate aspect of the story: the strawberries are decidedly meh.
Each £2.50 portion contains 10 berries which range in quality. Some are top seeds, as it were. Others shouldn’t have made it out of the qualifying round. In a word, they are strawberries. The cream is ….cream. Perfectly unremarkable. Put together, this could pass for an inoffensive, forgettable snack. It could also pass for something that looks like the remnants of a room service breakfast you see on the floor outside Marriott room 811. A bowl with a few lonely berries swimming in pinkish milk is something that belongs alongside a half-eaten croissant and discarded Splenda packs.
Unlike so many other Sports Xanadus, no one comes to Wimbledon and walks away disappointed. No one has ventured to the All England during these two summer weeks and walked away saying, “Nah, didn’t meet my expectation. Wish we had gone to Stonehenge instead.” Truly, Wimbledon is a treasure.
Wimbledon’s signature dish on the other hand? You can leave it off the bucket list. It’s unworthy of such an otherwise glorious event. It’s almost as if a magnificent throwback golf tournament were to align itself with, say, underpriced pimento cheese sandwiches.