January 21, 2004
The Carnival of the CarbophobesBy Thomas Lifson
The most caloric trade show in the universe must certainly be the three—times—a—year gatherings of the manufacturers and purveyors of gourmet (transl: 'expensive') food, known by one and all in the industry as the Fancy Food Show. The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade each year organizes gatherings in Chicago (Spring), New York (Summer), and San Francisco (Winter), where upwards of 50,000 separate luxury food items are displayed to, and sampled by, thousands and thousands of buyers from supermarkets, specialty food stores, gift boutiques, restaurants, liquor stores, and even discounters like Costco. Everybody is showing off the newest, the latest, the costliest, the ultimate, and the most delicious substances you could ever masticate.
If you're just a civilian member of the 'eating community,' forget about it. You can't even get close enough to press your nose against the shop window. No entry to the exhibition area without having your badge scanned. The samples being passed out are for members of the trade only. For the elect, walking past the thousands of booths is like an endless smorgasbord, with tiny servings.
When the Sixties brought us nutrition—consciousness, the phrase 'you are what you eat' entered the nation's stock of truisms. If this aphorism has any validity whatsoever, then the Fancy Food Show, with its emphasis on new products, tells us a few things about what we, as a nation, are becoming, at least if we can afford the premium prices.
It will surprise nobody that the hottest new category is low—carbohydrate foods. Low—carb pasta, low—carb waffle mix, low—carb jelly, low carb Armenian flat brad, available now, or coming soon. Low fat is out. Low salt is out. 'Lite' is barely mentioned. We are becoming carbophobes.
Olive oil, which I suppose doesn't have many carbs, is really, really big, judging by the bewildering variety of brands and types available. Olive oil infused with fruit flavors, olive oil infused with herbs, and olive oil in bottles so elegant and sexy that I had a dream about one last night. Olive oil from places I never imagined even had olive trees. Despite the evident taboo on carbs, there was plenty of bread for dipping into the olive oils on display.
Salsas and pasta sauces were also in great abundance. Many had a distinct regional or local identity attached.
As for pasta sauces, the variety available was simply bewildering. How could a low—carb—obsessed nation possibly consume all that pasta sauce? Rao's, a
Food fads may come and go, but there will always be chocolate. World—famous brands were there, but so were tiny outfits with a woman's name in the possessive form as their identifier. The lower—priced goods were handed—out freely, individually—wrapped in their foil packets. The more expensive purveyors had booths which looked like jewelry stores, with elegant display cases and chairs for buyers to sit in as they discussed the finer points of production, pricing, delivery, and, I suppose, carbohydrate content. It was, needless to say, much more effort to get a sample out of these folks.
Compared with trade shows in, say, the semiconductor or automotive industries, attended mostly by males with engineering backgrounds, the atmosphere was almost demure. I didn't see even one of those scantily—clad females known as 'booth babes,' drawing passers—by to inspect the goods. Of course, women play a big role in the specialty food industry, so there was no shortage of well turned—out ladies. But they were fully—dressed, there to sell steak, not just the sizzle.
Foreign products were there in abundance.
But even smaller countries, such as
There were a number of French producers of charcuterie, candies, and other items, but they were scattered about in individual booths. And you had to read their names to know they were French. The only French flag I was able to spot was a tiny desk—top model, the sort of thing you would put in front of a delegate to a downscale international conference. It was stuck on a shelf, as if nobody quite knew what to do with it — afraid to show it too prominently, but ashamed to conceal it entirely.
Mind you, this was in
Despite the connotations of elitism, effeteness, and snobbery the word 'gourmet' carries, in the end, the people who make and sell the stuff are pretty down—to—earth folks. Alongside the multinational giants are many more family—owned companies, run by people who literally got their hands dirty making their first products in their home kitchen.
The Fancy Food Show offers entrepreneurs with products they think are unique and superior the chance to connect with distributors and retailers. It is capitalism at its best, and, I might add, 'diverse' in the truest and best sense. The spices of
Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go to the gym.