The 34th Annual National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Fancy Food Show, a veritable bacchanalia for the taste buds, was held in the Moscone Center in San Francisco last month. Featuring 1,250 exhibitors from 35 countries-including Sri Lanka, Chile, Morocco, and Russia-and mixing up nearly 250,000 products with 18,000 attendees, it had the feeling of an international foodie mosh pit. But all came prepared to sip, sample, savor, and share a smattering of the showcased foods in a somewhat civilized, albeit a tad messy, manner.
The flavors of Santa Barbara were represented by, among others, the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company booth, which offered a wide variety of pistachio products, including that terrific pistachio oil. Folks loved them so much that some display bags walked off at the close of the first day. The Santa Barbara Olive Company cornered a prime spot in the North Hall to highlight its delicious gourmet olives. McConnell’s Ice Cream was chillin’ in a booth, making sure its Mission-emblazoned logo was visible. The Spicy Gourmet, a new company in town, rolled out its organic and fair trade spice collection at the show, featuring 16 spices and a unique spice mill. I know the folks from C’est Cheese were there taste testing products, but it’s hard to look for people when you have to circumnavigate overfilled napkins, carelessly flaunted toothpicks, and wine glasses tipping a bit too much one way or another. Stop by C’est Cheese and see what new cheeses they chose.
Chefs have evolved into mini-celebrities, “cheflebrities,” if you will. They are often present at restaurant openings, book-signings, product presentations, and trade shows, where all the aforementioned occasions are rolled into one. Gasps of “oohh” and “ahh,” and cries of “I love your recipes” accompanied by a crowd directional shift denoted the presence of one of these cheflebrities. Tom Douglas, of Etta’s and Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, was barbecuing away using his “Rub with Love” spices. Pork. Beef. Chicken. And, of course, salmon. Chef Douglas rubbed everyone and everything the right way. Food Network doyenne Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) was there with her line of specialty boxed mixes, sauces, and preserves. She was signing books and product postcards with a cool Hampton’s grace and style. Paul Prudhomme, the man who put Cajun cooking and turduckens on the culinary map was making some dirty rice and talking up his burgeoning collection of “Magic Seasoning Blends.” I mentioned to Chef Prudhomme that one of the best meals I ever had was a blackened tilapia at K-Paul’s, his restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He replied that I would have to come visit again; New Orleans needs visitors.
But the coup de “foie gras” was Mario Batali, Mr. Orange Crocs himself, who was there not only promoting his line of orange-tinged products and sauces, but signing books and actually giving them away to about 50 of us. I waited patiently in line for 30 minutes, and when it was finally my turn, I handed him the book and asked the former chef at the Santa Barbara Four Season’s Biltmore when he was coming back to Santa Barbara. He chuckled and said that he actually did come back for Mariska Hargitay’s wedding but he didn’t have to cook. With a smile, a handshake from the fabulous Croc’d one, and a newly autographed tome, I was off to find a place where I could glimpse the inscription. There in orange Sharpie ink was: “To Jill-Spaghetti is love. Mario Batali.” Ah, Mario, quando possiamo rivederci?
While noshing my way through the multitudinous aisles, and stopping every now and then to massage my tired dogs, there where some trends that made themselves quite apparent:
1) Tea is big. There’s a reason why Starbucks is concentrating more on tea offerings of late. Whether it be loose-leaf, bagged in a silk pyramid, or transported in a special tumbler, tea is the in thing.
2) It’s all about the big “O”; well, multiple “o’s,” actually: Organic and Oprah. Companies are offering more organic products than ever before. If a product was mentioned in Oprah Magazine, you couldn’t miss the endorsement placed strategically at the front of the booths. Oprah certainly liked a lot of products.
3) “Alternative” sweeteners are the future. Lots of honey. Agave. Pure cane sugar. High fructose corn syrup is just so 20th century
4) Flavor infusion is everywhere. Cheese infused with wasabi. Chocolate infused with spices. Cocktails infused with tea. Truffles infused with olive oil. Mayonnaise infused with bacon. You get the gist.
Next time you visit your favorite food purveyor, take a closer look at the new products. Perhaps be a little adventurous and sample some things that pique your curiosity; things that you wouldn’t normally indulge in. That is the Fancy Food Show spirit : but without the aching feet.