From Chinese to Chipotle: An Edible History of the Boston Celtics (Part One)
Sports Illustrated & The Spruce Eats
Few things in life evoke more passion, debate, ire and certainty than sports, but food is in the conversation. So, for me, an anthropologist who happens to be as enamored with basketball as he is with the culture of one of society's most fundamental components -- what we eat -- makes this article both a natural fit and a surprise.
It is a surprise in that this article, a cultural history of the food that powered the NBA's winningest franchise to seventeen banners, took me a half-decade of sportswriting to stumble onto the idea of, and perhaps even more of a surprise that such a beloved franchise with so many storied chroniclers that someone hadn't beat me to the punch (at least, as far as I can tell).
It is a fit in that while my focus as an anthropologist was located here in my current home of Mexico on infrastructure development, I'd also long viewed local cultures through the lens of how food provenience shaped daily lives and goals. Sooner or later, these two threads were bound to become entangled, and now, chronicling the edible history of the Boston Celtics, they have.
While the following article won't offer analysis deeper than the superficial treatment I've given my own academic background, it will address some difficult issues with less treatment than they deserve, while also glossing over joyful moments in a franchise thick with them. It is not a history of Celtics social justice any more than it is a history of Boston's biggest moments, but rather a telling of the caloric culture that has tied them together every bit as much as Red Auerbach's cigars, Rick Pitino's mistakes, or Danny Ainge's trades have through Celtics history.
It is meant to show the myriad ways our appreciation for, dependence on, and complicated relationships with food have fueled the league's greatest franchise, at least when measured by the banners hanging from the rafters. So, let's get this epic buffet of basketball and comestibles underway -- we've got a lot of dishes coming with seven decades of Celtics food history to consider.
The early years of the Boston Celtics are, in many ways, reminiscent of archaic cultures existing at the dawn of recorded history when it comes to food in that, while we do know plenty about the aspects of life that mattered to the chroniclers of that era, a general lack of public interest in the sport resulted in huge swaths of what was going on in the lives of those who took part was only the tip of the iceberg of their lives.
If you have the right tools and know where to look, there's hints of the daily lives of the earliest Celtics and their eating habits. Particularly compared to today, when the selection of one emoji or another in a social media post can be enough to generate an entire day's worth of media; there simply wasn't interest in this aspect of player's lives, with a few notable exceptions.
Those exceptions were, like ancient elites made visible through archaeology, extraordinary instances when food and the contexts they were consumed in were elevated to a level where it would be impossible to miss them in the reportage of the team from that era. In fact, a lot of the extraordinary circumstances were not reported on extensively in that era, and had to be reconstructed in later years and decades when the political climate had improved enough to make the uncomfortable issues they involved more palatable to the general public.
I am of course speaking about the long and uncomfortable history of segregation experienced firsthand by Boston's many African-American players in its first three decades of existence -- and the prejudices which linger to the present day.
Boston made the decision to become the first NBA franchise to draft an African-American player in one Chuck Cooper, and while, by his own admission, he might have had it easier than fellow pioneer Jackie Robinson did in baseball three years prior, something as fundamental as eating to an athlete's life could not be done in the same establishments as Cooper's white teammates in the pre-civil rights era 1950s.
This issue, despite the Celts' progressive drafting and Cooper's success in the league, did not change for some time. Over a decade later, in the thick of the civil rights movement, Tom “Satch” Sanders and Sam Jones were in Los Angeles for a regular-season game, and found themselves surrounded by police after venturing out from their hotel room for some food.
The neighborhood, a wealthier (read: white) neighborhood of the city, saw the two Celtics stars ordered against a nearby wall, Jones nervously dropping his meal to the ground as police demanded his compliance in a scene that could have been yesterday. On inspection of the bag containing their now-ruined meals, the police informed the pair they could go on their way, trying to make light of the situation (via the Boston Globe's Mark Murphy):
"We should arrest you just because you’re here to play the Lakers."
While it's unknown how the attempt at levity went at that time, odds are the two Boston players didn't find it so humorous. The incident, like so many, never saw the light of day, as local and national outlets felt it better to "stick to sports". "They didn’t want to hear about it,”said Sanders. “It didn’t have a place in the sports columns."
"To be a pro meant you had places you could go, places you couldn’t go, places you couldn’t stay, places you couldn’t eat, and that was all over the country," said Sanders via SI.com's Deantae Prince. A lifetime of such treatment followed teammate Bill Russell, who recalled his feelings when it began to impact the next generation the summer ahead of Sanders and Jones harrowing experience (via SI.com's Gilbert Rogin):
"In the summer of 1962 ... took my two sons to Louisiana, where I was born and lived for nine years, to see my grandfather. I make a reasonable living, I'm a reasonably intelligent person; I bathe regularly, so I'm pretty much a normal human being. But from the time I left Washington, D.C., we couldn't eat. ... We couldn't stop and eat. Or sleep. I wasn't really hungry. I was just trying to get food for my kids ... I drove a pretty nice car, had a few hundred bucks on me—legal tender—but I couldn't stop to eat or sleep. I bet any Russian you name, from Khrushchev on down, would have had a nice trip to Louisiana. What can you tell a kid 5 and a kid 3? No one can justify this to me."
While food can lay bare the barriers between us, it can also create bonds. For Boston, an early example of exactly this tendency could be found in legendary head coach and president Arnold "Red" Auerbach's predilection for Chinese food. Auerbach, whose mouth made him as famous for his commentary and culinary choices as it did the legendary victory cigars he would light up once a win was assured for the Celtics, was also known to consume Coca-Cola to excess, even using it to wash down one of his favored Hebrew National hotdogs he'd break his morning fast with.
No eggs nor coffee for Red, and with such unhealthy alternatives as regular fare for the Hall of Fame general manager, it's no wonder he preferred Chinese takeout whenever he was on the road. It saved him time, was comparatively safe to eat because of the cooking style (steamed) and ingredients, and was a fairly consistent food no matter what restaurant -- or city -- he got it in.
His commentary on the supposedly superior quality of Boston-area Chinese food compared to San Francisco got him into hot water once, but in typical Auerbach fashion, Red refused to back down, qualifying his opinion with an admission it was a subjective one (per Rogin): "[The restaurants in Boston are better] for what I like" said Auerbach, noting his disinterest in learning to cook the cuisine himself, for which has no time.
He would go on to institutionalize Chinese food as part of his NBA lifestyle, dragging players and staff alike to local restaurants for meetings, and taking advantage of their take-out menus to eliminate a "monotony" many of us would kill for. "You get tired of going out," he said, "sitting down, the soup, the meat, two vegetables."
Auerbach loved Chinese so much he would invest in a Boston-area Chinese restaurant, and kept Chinese noodles on his mantel to snack on next to jars of nuts, another snacking favorite. "I'm a great eater of nuts," Auerbach explained. "My pumpkin seeds are out. Just the other day I ran out of pistachios and Indian nuts. I got duplicates of these at home and away. All I have now is paper-thin almonds and sunflower seeds—what some people call polly seeds ... A lot of these things come salted and unsalted. I eat them unsalted."
Red was something of junk food junkie: "I also eat all kinds of candy. I just finished my last coconut-covered marshmallow," he revealed, a habit that didn't seem to hurt his longevity -- he lived to be 89 -- and that he fed with a personal account with local candymaker H.W. Powers. Despite his questionable taste in snacks, Auerbach forbade his players from eating pancakes. "One morning, I caught Sam Jones eating pancakes. "'Well, that bite cost you five dollars,' I said. 'What's your next move?'" said the legendary coach, who also ruled out whiskey from his team's approved adult beverages. "If they're in a cocktail lounge and there are glasses of ginger ale in front of them, I fine them right away. I can't taste every drink. Let them drink beer!"
Beer wasn't just Red's beverage of choice for his players, it was also a product he stumped for, along with player-turned-coach Tommy Heinsohn, who both recorded a series of commercials for Miller in the 1970s and 1980s lauding the flavor and comparatively lower calorie count. "And what else?" asked Auerbach in one such advertisement. "It's less filling!," answered the team in unison.
Despite all the ways food defined the iconic Celtics executive, he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- eat before a game. Acutely conscious of how his mood would be mellowed with a full stomach, Red instead chose to literally stay hungry. "That's why I can't eat before a game. It's a plain, physiological thing. After you eat, you sit down. What happens? You go to sleep. Who are the most dangerous people? Animals. A hungry tiger. Not a starving tiger, a hungry tiger."
Stay tuned for part two where we'll look at some of the Celtics dalliances with the restaurant business.