After Hours: The Fancy Food Show, NYC

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the longtime former dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association o Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She also the author of the LLRX Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research.

Imagine four football fields worth of food displays teeming with free
samples, and only three days to take it all in. Such was my plight at the
end of June, during the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s Fancy Food Show in NYC. Okay, maybe it was not so much a plight as a challenge. Regardless of the label for it, I gave my taste buds and feet over to it for the full three days. (Lest any doubt my dedication to the task, I offer as testament the unprecedented occurrence of my having no interest left, at the end of the show, for a focused tasting-cum-audio
tour featuring all-you-can-nibble samples of 14 of the world’s premier
chocolates. Unbelievably, I left almost all untouched.)  Along the way I
tasted some extraordinary new products, indulged in plenty of old
favorites and took in lots of street theater, both intended and otherwise.
Here are some of the highlights.

All The World’s a Stage

The Fancy Food Show is a paradise for food folk and people-watchers alike. It’s a self-contained universe of extroverts and exhibitionists, in which a simple “How’s it’s going?” can draw the response “Rice-a-rific!” I waved hi to someone in a monkey suit, failed to make eye contact with someone else dressed as an egg and side-stepped the all-silver (skin included) human impersonator of the NASFT award statuette, standing motionless on a pedestal. I declined a muffin from a bikini-clad woman, then was startled to hear (okay, see) the same offer from the smiling Tarzan look alike next to her, whose bronzed presence had somehow escaped my notice.

Despite with his obvious, uh, charms, my personal award for innovation in
serving samples goes to Wiener Essig, a 70-year-old Viennese vinegar brewery that used elongated pipettes to retrieve and then squirt its exquisite product line under visitors’ tongues. And exquisite it is, in terms both of taste (some varieties are actually meant to be drunk in place of Schnapps) and cost (Dean and Deluca offers a 8.45 oz. bottle of its
black current vinegar f
or a mere $40).

Celebrities of some sort are as common as the costumes. Chefs are
particularly abundant (although once a sales rep abandoned our interview tocatch sexologist Dr. Ruth visiting a nearby display). Last year Emeril
Lagasse held court flanked by unsmiling men in dark suits and glasses,
while preeminent Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme unpretentiously manned his Magic Seasonings Blends booth and Ming Tsai dished out stand-up comedy and servings of Asian cabbage and shrimp he’d cooked up to show off his tea rubs. “If you don’t like it, go see Bobby Flay!” he'd joked.

From what I’ve seen, no one has to be prompted for crowds to form around Bobby Flay at the show. He is a natural magnet, whether for striking young blondes or gangs of shall we say, mature women clamoring to have their photo taken with him en masse. When I first dropped by his booth this year, he was in front of the demonstration cooktop rather than behind (rats!) and engrossed in conversation with several striking young blondes. My timing was right for hot-off-the-burner dishes straight from the hands of other star chefs, though, most notably Tom Douglas of Seattle (whose fresh-ground Rubs With Love became staples of my kitchen on impact) and Rick Bayless (whose Frontera Grill is a must-visit in Chicago).

This Year’s Models

Every year has a noticeable theme in new products. Two years ago saw an explosion in celebrity chef lines. Last year everyone and his dog was going organic. (No mistake in that phrase: I saw -- but did not taste -- organic dog biscuits, from the Big Bark Bakery in Dallas.) This year, the trends that grabbed my attention were peanut butter for adults, pita snack foods and healthful drinks.

The trend in peanut butter is enhancing it with all kinds of flavors that
speak to a decidedly adult palate. One company voices its opinion on the
matter with its choice of name. Peanut Better transforms organic peanuts into four sweet flavors (including a coarsely ground deep chocolate and a peanut praline with a citrusy aftertaste) and four savory, sophisticated ones. The second category is laced with garlic or peppers and suitable for use as mustards or in appetizers or cooking. Peanut Butter &
Co.
, the merchandising arm of a Greenwich Village restaurant that specializes in peanut butter sandwiches, is focusing instead on appealing
to overgrown kids. Though it does have one cayenne-spiked variety, the bulk of its line is spreadable decadence. Cinnamon and Raisin Swirl is the big seller, while White Chocolate Wonderful and Dark Chocolate Dreams are particularly aptly named.

The splashiest pita pusher was Regenie's Crunchy Pitas, which stopped traffic with a booth full of harem girls handing out tastes. The chips are baked and fried, and the sweetened flavors (such as cinnamon
maple sugar) work as well as the savory (such as garlic parmesan). Though not technically made from pita, flour-based Lotus Chips are crisp, crunchy triangles that come close in consistency and texture. My favorite of its flavors was the original, sesame, which is sweet and salty with an afterkick. The true wonder in this category, though, were PitaSnax. They’re baked puff pillows of surprisingly thin dough, which provides the satisfying crunch that’s part of a carbohydrate craving. The ranch and cheese flavors in particular hold the promise of addiction.

If you’re hankering for alternatives to soft drinks, keep a lookout in
Whole Foods Market, Trader Joes and other upper-end grocers. The sheer
number of soda alternatives at this year’s show signals that they’re about
to flood the market.

Switch Soda claims to be the only carbonated juice drink that’s 100% juice (it’s sweetened by white, grape or apple juice instead of corn syrup). I found it gentle and refreshing. Refreshing is also the key characteristic of GuS Grown-Up Soda, a distinctly less sweet answer to soft drinks. All natural, it pairs tart fruit extracts (ginger ale, Meyer lemon, star ruby grapefruit or Valencia orange) with sparkling water and high fructose corn syrup.

Microbrewed Steap Soda took popular mainstream flavors and reengineered them with all-organic ingredients and green tea (one full cup per bottle). And it works. The orange and the raspberry are both pleasant, while the root beer is a knock-out, with a yummy creamy finish that knocks out any awareness of attendant nutritional virtues.

If you are susceptible to high concept, Generation-the-latest graphics, the
packaging alone will stir your interest in SmoothieSmile, a luscious UK-made product containing only crushed fruit (pineapple & coconut, mango & orange, blueberry & raspberry), without preservatives or added sugar. The single-serve variation, called Smoothiepacks, would be handy to tuck into a briefcase or flight bag.

I’ll admit that an eye-rolling “Oh, please” was my first reaction to
bottles of glacéau’s designer water chugging along an oval conveyer belt. After sampling most of the line (and downing two full bottles), I’ve dropped the look but kept the phrase. Each variety of vitaminwater offers enough of a mild fruit flavor to be interesting, and each is paired with herbs, vitamins or minerals for a specific effect. A number are particularly poised as
antidotes to job stress, such as endurance (peach, Vitamin E and
astragalus), stress-B (lemon-lime, Vitamin B and St. John’s wort), energy
(tropical citrus, Vitamin C and ginseng) and power-C (dragonfruit, which
tastes like mixed berries, Vitamin C and taurine). All are vapor-distilled
and contain electrolytes, without any of the additives that come with
sports drinks. Glacéau sells the same base, minus the flavorings, herbs
and vitamins, under the name smartwater.

In the next installment of After Hours, I’ll return to the Fancy Food Show
to pass on a few of my favorite things.

ã Kathy Biehl 2003